It was an historic day for the Church and for the whole world. The See of Peter has been voluntarily vacated only a handful of times in 2,000 years and rarely with such peace and universal goodwill toward the man who was Pope.
The sight of Pope Benedict flying away in his helicopter and then greeting the public for what is probably the last time ever at Castel Gandolfo elicited some emotions. And while the images are powerful, what will endure will be his final words over these last few weeks. He has been more personal than ever and brutally honest with them as he explained himself and also prepared us for what is to come.
Melanie asked me tonight if I thought he would write in retirement. I think for the Holy Father writing is like breathing. Seeing his words over the years, it seems to me that writing must be how the Holy Father thinks through things and expresses himself best. Yet, I think we won’t see any of his writings published while he lives.
I believe he realizes that he is setting a precedent in his final days for how a Pope Emeritus behaves. He must be careful to avoid any kind of confusion or any hint of teaching during the reign of his successor. What weight does a retired pope’s words carry? Does papal infallibility end at the abdication? If basic teachings like all-male priesthood are still debated, imagine how factions could play one pope’s words off another’s.
Benedict set another precedent today in that regard, when during his audience with the College of Cardinals, he became the first to pledge his obedience and support to the new pope, whoever is to be chosen from among the men assembled before him. Let there be no question, he was saying, about who the pope is.
So he will turn to a life of prayer, first of all for the Church and for the conclave to come, and perhaps most of all for the man who will wear the Shoes of the Fisherman after him. Who else knows better what fate awaits that man? But what a blessing and a comfort it will be to our future pope, to know that Benedict is there, praying for him, even to act as someone he can talk to who will know precisely the burden he carries. Wouldn’t it be amazing for the retired pope to act as a kind of spiritual director to the new one?
Fare well, Benedict, Your Holiness, Roman Pontiff Emeritus. I hope you sleep in tomorrow, rise to spend the morning playing some music or reading in your library, freed from appointments and audiences, and then, perhaps take a nap in the afternoon in a sunny spot in Castel Gandolfo, while your beloved cat naps in your lap. You deserve it.