End of the Line: The Pope steps down- a decision of historic proportions

The Catholic Church in Flensburg, Germany  Photo taken in April 2011

History has a way of creating the best out of people. When Pope Benedict XVI was nominated to take over for the deceased Pope John Paul II in 2005, he made history in Germany as the first person in over 450 years to rule the Catholic Church, the highest position in a religion that has prospered for over 2000 years. Eight years later on 11 February, 2013, he made history again- by stepping down from that same post- the first pope to do it in nearly 600 years! Another mark in the history books for both The Church as well as Germany!

The news of his spontaneous decision to call it quits caught the author by surprise, as it came in the midst of the Carnevale season where people can sin to their hearts content until Lent season arrives, which is tomorrow. There have been some mixed reactions to the news of the Pope’s resignation. Many news agencies and even the Protestant Church in Germany view his decision as a sign of respect, knowing the fact that at the age of 85 and with no strength left, it was time to call it quits. Normally when anointed the Pope of the Church, he is expected to rule in the Vatican until his very death. Records show that the Pope has ruled the Church for an average of 23 years.  Yet at the time of their deaths, the average age was 87 years.  When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, he was 85 years old, but had ruled the Vatican for 26.5 years. The longest reigning Pope however was Pope Leo XIII, who ruled for 31 years from 1878 until his death in 1903- at the age of 93! So the decision for Benedict XVI to step down for health reasons is a more logical choice, for he can retire peacefully instead of trudging through every ceremony until it was his time to die.

Yet by the same token, the Pope may have been pressured to leave by the cardinals within his own Church, as in the eight years he  was directing the Vatican, he was beset by numerous scandals that left the credibility of the Church, let alone the Catholic religion, in question. Two key clusters of scandals come to mind: First the sex abuse scandal involving hundreds of priests from churches around the world (including Germany and the USA) and three times as many victims, who have come forward to open up and in some cases, even confront the Pope during his visit. The number of cases are infinite and there are still many that have yet to be closed. The Pope’s responses have still to this day not satisfied both those affected but also the devoted ones who followed him from the start. Some have speculated that he either turned a blind eye or encouraged the priests to abuse the children.  In either case, many have turned their backs on the Church because of the scandal and it was not surprising that public outcry demanding the Pope’s resignation created tremors felt by the Vatican.

The other scandal dealt with his stance on Islam, and in particular, the speech in 2006 at the University of Regensburg, which created a stir among the Muslim community. Again, theories connected with his childhood and his service in the Nazi Army during World War II may have played a role in these comments. Yet, the comments were retracted and the Pope made tried to make peace by visiting the Islamic countries, visiting many Muslim priests and politicians from Islamic countries, and in cases of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, areas that are dominantly Muslim, he pleaded for peace and prosperity within the region and other areas.  While the Pope opened the doors and offered peace to other religions with little or no incident, the relationship with the Muslim was perhaps the most delicate for any action by the pontiff would be watched by many around the world.

Overall, the era of Benedict XVI represented the changing times, something which despite his attempts to return Catholicism to its traditional roots in the face of modernism, had to be embraced in one way or another, regardless of the issues he had to face both within the Vatican as well as with the general public. While he won respect by many for his attempts to open the doors of the Church for people of all religions to enter, he faced so much in terms of scandals and criticism to a point where it drained every bit of energy out of him. It was even noticeable during his visit to central and southwestern Germany in October 2011, when the more energetic and open-hearted Pope passed through the city center of Erfurt, and addressed the crowd at the Cathedral (Erfurter Dom) as well as at a youth camp near Leinefelde in northwestern Thurngia. (A column on the Pope’s visit can be found here.) But when the announcement was made yesterday, he was weak, frail and at his end- similar to what had happened to Pope John Paul II in the last three years of his term before his death.  Perhaps it was high time for him to step down, for it does not pay to rule the Church in a physical state as he was in.  Yet a decision to do just that was historic, something that we will most likely see only once in our lifetime.  While he may be nearing the end of the line (he steps down on 28 February), he left the church open to the next person (most likely a younger cardinal) to take over and continue with his work of restoring the identity of the Church, while at the same time, not alienate the other religions, whether it is the Protestants, the Jews, or the Muslims.