Sometimes the way to understand one story is by way of another. The story, which we’d all like to understand more fully, is the resignation of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. The story the Church sets before us this First Sunday of Lent is that of Christ’s Temptation. Perhaps a story that illumines both concerns the namesake of the Holy Father, Saint Benedict, and his sister, Saint Scholastica.
Benedict and Scholastica were twin brother and sister; both dedicated their lives to God by withdrawing from the world as monk and nun. Once a year they would visit each other to "spend the whole day together praising God and talking of sacred things." One year, Scholastica was so moved by their conversation that she asked her brother and his companions to stay the night. "Let us go on until morning talking about the delights of the spiritual life." Rather peremptorily, Benedict replied, "Sister, what are you saying? I simply cannot stay outside my cell." As the story goes:
When she heard her brother refuse her request, the holy woman joined her hands on the table, laid her head on them and began to pray. As she raised her head from the table, there were such brilliant flashes of lightning, such great peals of thunder and such a heavy downpour of rain that neither Benedict nor his brethren could stir across the threshold of the place where they had been seated. Sadly he began to complain: "May God forgive you, sister. What have you done?" "Well," she answered. "I asked you and you would not listen, so I asked my God and he did listen. So now go off, if you can, leave me and return to your monastery."
Ponder that vignette. Notice that Benedict was doing what was expected of a monk. He had visited his sister, had enjoyed her company, and was resolved on returning to his monk’s cell. From the point of view of duty, Benedict cannot be faulted.
Look again at Saint Luke’s Temptation of the Christ. Carefully considered, each request the devil is rather reasonable for someone in the role of God’s servant. Wouldn’t the whole world benefit from stones turned to bread? If the devil controls the kingdoms of the world, wouldn’t recognizing and reverencing his dominion help to effect rapid change in the world? The leaders of totalitarian systems strike that bargain. And if one truly believes that one is God’s chosen instrument, why not proves oneself, even to one’s self, by jumping off the parapet of the Temple?
Of course both stories suggest that something runs deeper than duty or role, and that "something" is our love of God. Benedict isn’t supposed to turn away from his Sister’s love in order to do what is expected of a monk, and Christ certainly can’t fulfill the devil’s reasonable expectations for the Messiah, because to do so would be to forsake his deepest identity, Beloved Son of the Father. In both cases, the relationship that is love is the deepest, most foundational of identities, greater than role, deeper than duty.
All men and women are tempted to identify themselves by what they do, but the faith reminds us that we are most deeply defined, not by what we do, but by who we are — beloved child the Father, sibling of the savior, spouse of the Holy Spirit.
There’s a compelling reason for a pope not to resign: namely, if one pope can resign for a good reason, another pope can be coerced into resigning for a poor one. But ultimately, the papacy remains a duty, not an identity. We call it an office — from the Latin officium (duty).
It’s different than what we call a "vowed state of life," such as marriage and the religious life. Those are relationships rooted in our very identities, though, as forms of life, even they can’t fully escape human frailty. But, in the truly age-old law of the Church, there is provision for the resignation of an ecclesial office, even that of pope.
If one recognizes — as much as it is given for any human to know — that one cannot fulfill the duties of an office, then one resigns it. The office exists first as a form of service to the Church, not as a means of personal fulfillment, though, like any work well done, it should aid in that.
Pope Benedict has told us,
After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.
Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II chose the torment of dying in office, because his conscience told him that he could fulfil his duties as he did so. In the silence of his soul, Benedict has chosen to quit the office so that his frailty not impede its necessary service to the Church. The decisions of both men were rooted in their love of God, something much deeper than duty, or — perhaps better put — the first charge of every soul.
In the end, we remember and recount stories as a way of forming ourselves. Christ our Lord, Saint Benedict, Pope Benedict: they teach us that duty never comes before love. One’s role never eclipses one’s relationship. It took Saint Scholastica and her storm for Saint Benedict to realize this, but Christ never confused self and task. Who he was determined everything that he did. So it must for us all.
Deuteronomy 26: 4-10 Romans 10: 8-13 Luke 4: 1-13