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The resignation Pope Benedict XVI and the future of the Roman Catholic Church

By Jeroboam Shaanika
"Lord, now let your servant go in peace, just as you promised; because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see" Luke 2:26). These were the words we are told of were of an elderly Simeon who was promised, that he would not die till he had seen the Lord's anointed. Perhaps that is a case with the Pope who will be resigning on 28 February 2013.

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) will probably go down in the annals of history as the February 2013 surprise; perhaps more are yet to follow. Nobody expected him to be a Pope for eternity, but the unwritten rule has been that once you become a Pope it is the same way as "till death do us part". Pope John Paul II remained in this role until he said these words, "Let me go to the house of the Father ", on 2 April, 2005 at his deathbed. He was a month away from his 85th birthday which was due on 18 May.

His successor's resignation sends shocking waves in a world accustomed to traditions and norms. Personally, I was very surprised too in hearing Pope Benedict XVI announcing his own resignation. The resignation is to take effect from 28 February 2013. So he is putting the Church on notice that come 1 March 2013 he will no longer be available. Some comedians joked that Pope Benedict XVI gave God three week notice. However this is no joking matter as there are implications concerning the future of the Church. Perhaps before expressing surprise, we should examine factors that may have influence the decision of the Pope to resign.

A synopsis of the history on some of his predecessors who took the same path, but for varying reasons may be helping us to make sense of this resignation.

Yes, it is an unprecedented move in the modern history of the Catholic Church; no Pope has stepped down nearly in 600 years. The last pope to resign, Gregory XII, did so in 1415, 10 years into his tenure, in the midst of a leadership crisis in the church known as the Great Western Schism. Another Pope to resign was Benedict IX, one of the youngest Popes, at the age of about 20 when he was elected in 1032. History has it that Benedict IX became notorious for licentious behavior and for selling the Papacy to his godfather, Gregory VI, in 1045, who apparently bribed him out because he thought Benedict IX was unworthy to be a Pope.

Gregory VI was removed and Benedict IX reclaimed the position. Another Pope to resign was Celestine V who resigned in 1294 and fled the Vatican after just three months. Celestine V was imprisoned by his successor Boniface VIII, who wanted to ensure that Celestine V did not become an example for future Popes.

The circumstances surrounding the resignation of other Popes are so different from reasons given for the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. What is the significance with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholic Church particularly in modern times? Besides the shock wave it sends across the world it also invites a number of questions that are not likely to faint very soon. The resignation of the Pope begs a pertinent question of ability. Should the Catholic Church now considers electing a young Pope amongst the cardinals and if there are no young cardinals, should the Church considers elevating young priests and fasttrack them to become Cardinals? Arguably John Paul II was 58 when he became Pope and could be considered young, but that was 1978. There is also a question of Geography, most if not all, from the past to the present Pope all hail from Europe.

Is it now time to elect none European Pope? The expectations are high for a non European Pope. In the United States, for instance there is a high hope that Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York will become a Pope. All expectations are nothing, but wishful thinking, it is up to the Conclave to decide who should be the next Pope base on their conviction that the elected Cardinal is fit to shepherd the Church.

The Pope is not elected on the basis of geographical representation, but the knowledge and devotion to the teaching of the Church doctrine, as well as the ability to lead are likely to be the requirements for selection consideration.

While it has been almost considered a taboo for a Pope to resign, we as humans should not divorce ourselves from the harsh reality that we are after all, humans made from the flesh which inherently is weak by its nature. The game changer for Pope Benedict XVI's devotion to duty according to the Vatican is advanced age. By Pope Benedict XVI's own account the strength of his mind and body has deteriorated to the extent that he is not able to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to him. After he announced his resignation, a visible lightning was seen striking the top of St Peter's dome at the Vatican, perhaps a miracle or another sign of God saying "this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" in the same way a dove appeared after Jesus was baptized.

Some schools of thought are advancing conspiracy theories that there is something else we do not know and probably we may never know. There are also claims of money-laundering links to the Mafia. One school of thought is speculating that perhaps the papal ex-bulter Paolo Gabriele who was convicted by a Vatican tribunal in October 2012, for leaking secret papal papers might have discovered a skeleton in a Vatican closet. This is purely speculation, but the possibility cannot entirely be ruled out. Schools of thought are not going to stop speculating, they will continue to dig in hope that they will one day find a treasure of facts.

At a moment the Catholic Church is facing mammoth challenges and needs a shepherd to nourish its doctrine while at the same time adjusting itself to the reality of the world we live in, not necessarily the world we want. The world is like a biblical field where weeds had grown among the wheat causing great distress to the wheat sprouts. The spiritual leaders serve as labourers in the field to weed out the weeds and nourish the sprouts to grow stronger. The question of how to keep the teaching of the church faith to remain relevant from one generation to other remains a challenge. There are too many weeds that need to be uprooted.

The issue of abortion and use of condoms are just some of the challenges faced by the Church today. It is a religious test for the doctrine of the church, whether it is to be changed by the world or it will continue to ride the wave, hoping to influence its curves. We are told when Jesus spoke to Peter in accordance with the scripture in the book of Matthew 16: 18 "I say to you, that you are Peter (Kaiphas), and upon this stone I shall build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it", he foresaw the challenges the Church was to face in the future. Today, these challenges are manifesting themselves in different forms and shapes. The Church throughout its history had faced many challenges both big and small.

While many people point to the abuse of children by priests as game changer, I would refrain from going that far, because abuse even if tolerated, it only casts a shadow of doubt, it does not become part of the church doctrine, but more of a lapse of human judgment on the part of individuals. It is purely a weakness of human flesh and poor judgment or indeed evils of psychopathic mind. Yes it does affect the confidence of the faithful, but it is easier to manage in comparison to the assault on the church doctrine. How the Church handles issues will determine the level of confidence, amongst its followers.

Why then are we shocked on hearing the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI? Is it because we are not accustomed to the resignation of a Pope? Pope Benedict XVI at 85 years came to the realization that in as much as he wants to serve God, he cannot pretend to be serving the Church. Is it better to remain devoted to a cause by merely hanging over the Clift while holding a thin rope or let someone throws in a much stronger rope? Sure, Pope Benedict XVI has pondered on the future of the Church and has come to a realization and I should assume under God's guidance that he is not able shepherd the Church during this testing times, while at an advanced age and probably poor health too. If the Church is to continue advancing its doctrine, which has survived for so many years and has overcome many challenges, including the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century (reformers) who were opposed to the Catholic doctrines, rites, and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, it needs a serious pause and reflections.

Many things might have happened beyond our knowledge. One which comes to mind is that Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church on January 3, 1521 for having nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the Castle Church, in Wittenberg Germany.

The Church then also had to put up with the religious war mostly in central Europe which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Yet the main doctrine of the church survived. Catholic beliefs include baptism which is necessary for salvation, God's Ten Commandments which provide a moral compass or an ethical standard to live by and the existence of the Holy Trinity, one God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. So far that believe has not changed, what has perhaps changed are some of the practices such as those that were challenged by the reformers. If there changes, they were more of normative than doctrinarian changes.

It is equally true to say a number of challenges facing the Church today are rigid norms and traditions. Why, for example, there are nuns and priests, but only priests would be able to climb the ladder and become cardinals and eventually Pope, while the nuns remain nuns? We do not expect that to happen overnight or after the resignation Pope Benedict XVI , but probably one day another type of a Martin Luther may come up to demand reform that would enable a woman to become Pope or whatever equivalent feminine noun.

Perhaps a question only Pope Benedict XVI can answer is this, will the Pope be able to recite the words of St. Paul "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith"? Perhaps yes it depends very much on his conscience, if it is clear the answer is yes. I'm not intending to question the faith of Pope Benedict XVI, who I am sure, has been tested and passed the test of time, but just asking the same questions that the Pope himself may have possibly already asked before deciding to resign. I don't not think there would be a change in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, but possibly a personality changes and perhaps approaches to issues. Nevertheless, serious thinking adjustments ought to be made and get used to a retired Pope.

Since it is first time a Pope resigns or gives up his spiritual leadership in 600 years, the most frequent asked question is what will happen to him? Is he going to become Pope Emeritus or revert back to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger? Is he going to be accommodated in the Vatican or he will return to his native country of Germany?

If he dies as a resigned Pope is going to be accorded a funeral befitting a Pope amongst his predecessors or they will bury him in his native Germany? What are the benefits for a retired Pope and whether this sets precedence for succeeding Pontiffs to retire? Will the retired Pope (not necessarily Benedict XVI) present a serious challenge as an alternative Pope; should his successor prove to be unpopular amongst the army of Cardinals and within the Roman Catholic Church? Well some decisions on the above questions are likely going to be made by his predecessor or, the College of Cardinals, I am not sure how.

What is clear however, the resignation of has thrown the Vatican Etiquettes off the balance scale. The question of what to do with Pope Benedict XVI is not likely to fade very soon at least until the new Pope cements his authority in the Catholic Church. What is the significance of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI? The significance is that it has added another condition to the requirements of electing a Pope, age limit or to paraphrase Pope Benedict XVI, the strength of mind and body.

While many of the estimated number of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics continue to absorb the news of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the machinery at the Vatican are probably already in motion to assemble a Conclave to elect a new Pope. Possibly before this coming Easter, we would have a benefit of history to witness a smoke from the chimney of the Vatican City, be it white or black at the end of the day we are likely to hear these words from Cardinal Protodeacon "Habemus Papam"! Or ("We Have a Pope!").

Jeroboam Shaanika is a Namibian civil servant, however, the views expressed here do not reflect that of the Namibian government, but entirely his own.


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