From Rome to Providence, Surprise at Pope Benedict XVI’s Resignation
After he heard the news that Pope Benedict XVI would resign at the end of the month, Providence College graduate Nathan J. Ricci ’12, who is studying to be a priest at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, went to St. Peter’s Basilica to pray.
Ricci described how his eyes were drawn to the one bright spot in the darkness — Bernini’s Chair of St. Peter, illuminated high above the altar — and above that, the stained-glass window of a dove, the enduring symbol of the Holy Spirit.
The two images encapsulated his thoughts, Ricci said.
“I couldn’t help but think that soon this chair will be vacant; soon our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, who has shepherded the Church with great wisdom and fidelity, will no longer be the Bishop of Rome,” said Ricci. “One man — one great and holy man — will leave the Chair of St. Peter, but another will fill it. Christ always provides for His Church. ... This is the one thing that remains constant, and it is a beautiful gift that each of us has received as Catholics.”
Pope Benedict’s decision to step down, announced February 11, was met with surprise around the world.
“No one expected this,” said Rev. James F. Quigley, O.P. ’60, associate chaplain of the Providence College National Alumni Association and a member of the faculty at the Pontifical North American College. “It’s a brave and generous decision on the part of Pope Benedict, and it is a very humble decision in as much as he admits his aging process is limiting his ability to minister as the universal pastor of the Catholic community.”
Dr. James F. Keating, associate professor of theology and a papal scholar, said the pope’s decision is historic because it means that in the future, when popes reach a certain age, they will be able to leave the job.
“It changes the nature of the papacy from lifetime appointment to elected office,” said Keating. “If you can’t do these duties anymore, you retire.”
Keating, who teaches a course called The History and Theology of the Papacy, said most popes have resigned only under pressure. The only one who left voluntarily was Celestine V in 1294. He stepped down under an agreement with his successor, Bonifacio VIII — who promptly put Celestine in jail.
But Pope Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, made it clear that he did not want to be pope through a prolonged illness, as Pope John Paul II had, Keating said. In recent years, the pope endured several hardships, including the leaking of documents by the Vatican bank and by his own butler, which the pope may have felt would have been prevented by a younger man.
A brilliant theologian
As for Pope Benedict’s legacy, Keating said, “I think he’s one of the greatest theologians we’ve ever had, one of the greatest preachers. His homilies are magnificent, considerably better than John Paul II’s. He preaches the Gospel in an attractive way, though most people haven’t had the opportunity to hear them, because they’re in Italian.
“One of the things that Ratzinger was critical about was John Paul’s cult of personality,” said Keating. “Benedict wanted it to be about Jesus. He thought the pope ought to appear as a preacher.”
Raymond L. Flynn ’63 & ’84Hon., who served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican from 1993-1997, said in radio interviews that the pope’s resignation will change the landscape of the Catholic Church throughout the world, giving Catholics in Africa and Latin America a greater role in choosing the new leader.
Pope Benedict always “put the Church and God above his own personal ambition,” said Flynn. “If you listen to the words of his resignation, they are quite remarkable.”
“He’s a very gentle, simple, pious man who is really not somebody that wanted to be in the limelight, on center stage, right from the very beginning and, so, I think he wants time for himself and probably wants to move on to let somebody else come in and do the job, which is a very, very difficult job. It requires a lot of travel,” Flynn said. “He did a wonderful job. He’s a wonderful man.”
— Vicki-Ann Downing
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