By Emeka Alex Duru, Features Editor
It is not certain if the phrase; shock, may be adequate to capture the feeling of the Catholic community since last Monday, when Pope Benedict XVI, made the sudden proclamation of his intention to step down at the end of the month. In fact, many are still dazed at the unusual development.
This is not without reasons. For the Catholic faithful and other enlightened analysts that are used to associating the ministry with conservative tendencies, the Pope’s decision was not only audacious but largely out of tune with the church’s tradition. This is especially as the move comes nearly 600 years after Pope Gregory XII had taken similar step in 1415.
Gregory’s case was essentially a compromise to halt the ravenous schism among the competing papal claimants.
But Benedict based his action on advanced age and failing health. He emphasised that carrying out the duties of a Pope requires strength of mind and body.
“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,” he told the cardinals.
He added; “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by 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 St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary — strengths which in the last few months, have deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
“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, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20.00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.”
The 85-year-old Pontiff made the announcement during a meeting of Vatican Cardinals. The development which came to many as a surprise, in a way, took similar pattern to his emergence approximately eight years ago.
Then, following the passage of Pope John Paul 11, many permutations had been made on his likely successor. While some names, including Nigeria’s Francis Cardinal Arinze, repeatedly popped up in the estimation of book makers, Benedict, was hardly mentioned.
When however the conclave of cardinals settled for him and the symbolic white smoke from the cistern confirmed his choice, it was interpreted as falling in line with the ways of God, believed to be different from the thinking of men.
The Pope, born Joseph Ratzinger, apparently aware of the task ahead, described himself as “a simple, humble worker in God’s vineyard”.
Perhaps, he knew the limitations of his human strength, given the controversies and contentious issues in the Church at the time. He for instance inherited the Papacy when there were heated arguments on the continued relevance of celibacy among the priests and the church’s position on abortion and use of artificial birth control measures. These were aside allegations of sex scandals involving some church officials.
But perhaps, the greatest challenge before the pontiff then was the apprehension by many that his predecessor, who had made huge impacts on world affairs, was leaving behind shoes generally considered too big for him. Benedict was apparently aware of these tasking demands, hence he remarked; “I am consoled by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and how to act, even with insufficient tools.”
The Pope, eight years later, obviously can no longer ignore the pains in his back; he can no longer count on the strength of his arms. And he has taken a noble path.
Prelate of the Methodist Church Nigeria, Sunday Ola Makinde, described his action as that of “a great man of honour and religious leader in history”
Director of Social Communication, Catholic Secretariat, Lagos, Gabriel Osu, described him as “a holy person who has put everything in order as the Chief Shepherd of the Catholic Church worldwide.”