I got up early this morning and spent about a half hour on the treadmill getting exercise both physically and spiritually as I prayed the rosary. When I returned to my room to stretch I turned on the television where I heard the "breaking news" and saw photos of Pope Benedict. At first I thought he had died. Then I was shocked to hear that he had resigned. It is taking some time to digest this news.
In the announcement of his resignation, Pope Benedict told the Cardinals whom he had gathered the following reason for his resignation:
"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."
As we talked about the resignation in the office this morning and wondered how we could make a smooth transition as we publicize Pope Benedict's monthly prayer intentions, Michael, one of our part-time employees and the coordinator of our volunteers, reminded us of something very important. He said, "Now he'll be the praying Pope." Not that Pope Benedict has not been a Pope who has prayed intensely as he strove to be faithful to his call and ministry, but now prayer and sacrifice will be his primary mission.
Today is the 21st World Day of the Sick and the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Is it a coincidence that Pope Benedict chose this as the day on which he announced his resignation due to health concerns and his growing weakness? With God there is no coincidence.
When he resigns Pope Benedict will focus his attention on a different but very important ministry. Here is what he wrote at the beginning of his Message for this World Day of the Sick:
"This day represents for the sick, for health care workers, for the faithful and for all people of goodwill “a privileged time of prayer, of sharing, of offering one’s sufferings for the good of the Church, and a call for all to recognize in the features of their suffering brothers and sisters the Holy Face of Christ, who, by suffering, dying and rising has brought about the salvation of mankind” (John Paul II, Letter for the Institution of the World Day of the Sick, 13 May 1992, 3). On this occasion I feel especially close to you, dear friends, who in health care centres or at home, are undergoing a time of trial due to illness and suffering. May all of you be sustained by the comforting words of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council: “You are not alone, separated, abandoned or useless. You have been called by Christ and are his living and transparent image” (Message to the Poor, the Sick and the Suffering)."
In his Message for this day, Pope Benedict also mentioned St. Anna Schaffer whom he canonized last October 21, saying that she "was able to unite in an exemplary way her sufferings to those of Christ."
He said the following in his homily at the time of her canonization:
"Anna Schaeffer, from Mindelstetten, as a young woman wished to enter a missionary order. She came from a poor background so, in order to earn the dowry needed for acceptance into the cloister, she worked as a maid. One day she suffered a terrible accident and received incurable burns on her legs which forced her to be bed-ridden for the rest of her life. So her sick-bed became her cloister cell and her suffering a missionary service. She struggled for a time to accept her fate, but then understood her situation as a loving call from the crucified One to follow him. Strengthened by daily communion, she became an untiring intercessor in prayer and a mirror of God’s love for the many who sought her counsel. May her apostolate of prayer and suffering, of sacrifice and expiation, be a shining example for believers...."
The world doesn't understand this. Some commentators said that the Pope is retiring so he can enjoy a well-deserved rest. No. On rare occasions Popes have resigned but they don't retire. Pope Benedict will be moving to a new and powerful ministry for the Church and the world. In great humility, he will leave the work that he has faithfully offered to God and will now focus on offering up his prayers and sufferings.