PROVIDENCE — As 1.2 billion Catholics around the world grapple with Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden decision Monday to in essence submit his two week’s notice before his resignation becomes effective on February 28, one thing is already abundantly clear — a new precedent has now been set for others to follow.
“This act has changed the papacy forever,” says Dr. James Keating, an associate professor of theology and director of humanities at Providence College. “It’s no longer a lifetime appointment.”
At 85, Pope Benedict will do what very few of his peers throughout the course of history have done — resign from the highest office in the Catholic Church on his own terms, instead of serving until his death, while going on to live out his days in quiet prayer, without the title, or any official influence in the administration of the church.
“From now on, popes will be expected to retire,” Keating says, when it is perceived that their advancing age may affect their ability to serve as strong leaders.
Pope John Paul II served until his death, despite outward signs that he was ailing.
As Pope Benedict had worked closely with the late pontiff, perhaps he was influenced by the dramatic decline in John Paul’s health in the years before his death, Keating theorizes, which in turn has prompted him to take stock of his own advancing age.
“Perhaps he realized that he just could not do the job to the level it requires,” he said.
Keating says that in retirement, the pope will serve a function that is closer to that of a local ordinary, shielded from the pomp and circumstance and admiring crowds that have greeted him in his travels around the world since his election as pope in 2005.
For one of Keating former graduate students, who is preparing a book on the rise of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and his philosophy as pope, the ending of the story is one he could never have anticipated.
“I’ve studied this man for so long. I’m certain he did the right thing,” said William Patenaude, who also writes a column on Catholic Ecology for Rhode Island Catholic.
He said he was initially inspired to learn more about the man who would become pope following the death of his predecessor.
“He spoke so beautifully and lovingly and graciously,” Patenaude said of Pope Benedict.
He would delve into the pontiff’s writings, and his Gospel messages of love and understanding, and often found himself explaining his teachings to others. It was then that a friend suggested he write a book on the pope. He hopes to complete his work, “The Basics of Benedict XVI,” in the next few months.
“I think it’s really important for the faithful to define his legacy and not the mainstream media,” Patenaude said.