Today was that puzzling moment when Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy, something that has not happened for more than half a millennium–not since Gregory XII resigned in 1415. Yet, as Benedict said his farewells his power was not so easily renounced. The announcement that Benedict intended to resign was stunning news given how many popes had chosen not to relinquish power till taken by the grave. There seemed some hope in his move. He offered the reasoning that he was getting too old and no longer had the strength to do the job.
Was this a new precedent for popes? Would they no longer allow themselves to be elected just as they reached the age when the Catholic Church considered them old enough to be harmless? Would cardinals force the election of younger popes who might still be filled with the dynamism to make serious change? This might not be the sort of change that selecting a pope from South America who held strongly to Liberation Theology would be, but it might still be significant progress.
So how does one go about letting go of papal power? A pope wears white robes rather than a black cassock. A pope wears a white skullcap rather than the red of cardinals nor the pink skullcap of bishops. One might think that one who had renounced the papacy would let go of the symbols of power such as the white robes and white skullcap. A former pope might go back to the outfit of a cardinal or bishop or priest or even layperson. Benedict, however, has elected to continue wearing the white.
Another sign of the papacy is the taking of a new name. Benedict XVI was once Joseph Ratzinger. One could have easily assumed that upon resignation from the papacy he would become Joseph again. Apparently, he will remain Benedict.
Surely, you might say, he is going to give up living in the Vatican and having a personal secretary conduct his affairs. On this account too, you would be wrong. All of this seems rather shocking to me, but then I am comparing the pope with Bishop Kenneth Untener who never was much for convention.
Where most bishops are canon lawyers, Bishop Ken was a theologian. Where most bishops where a prince’s ring and live in a mansion, Bishop Ken wore relatively simple clothes and moved from parish to parish as he watched over his diocese. One of the few affectations in his clothing was a shepherd’s crook that he carried which could be disassembled for transport. Bishop Ken was perhaps most infamous for bringing in people trained in psychology to talk to people being ordained or going into religious orders about sexuality. That strike against him seems laudatory looking back. During his time as bishop, women attained positions of prominence in the Diocese of Saginaw. Laity trained at the diocese’s Center for Ministry and became lay ministers including some taking posts as pastoral administrators with all but sacramental power. Bishop Ken was also known for his soft spoken nature and sense of humor.
Given that it has been nearly 600 years since the last pope resigned, Benedict was bound to blaze a new trail, but the wisdom of his reluctance to let go of the accoutrements of power remains to be seen. Had Benedict asked my advice I would have suggested that he no longer hold onto the title of Your Holiness and return to Father, at the most. I would have suggested that he return to the clothing of a priest and live out his life in a monastery away from the pomp and circumstance that accompanies the halls of power. Benedict says now that he will give his “unconditional obedience” to his successor, one cannot help but wonder if this will be as hard to grant as all of his other opportunities to relinquish power and status have proven to be.