I was surprised to learn that Pope Benedict XVI had resigned the Papacy. While I have been aware of the possibilities in Church law that the Holy Father had the option to do so, I never really considered it would happen. However, in his announcement on Monday, Pope Benedict said, “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 barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
The barque of St. Peter refers to the boat/ship as seen in the passage of Luke’s Gospel, “Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.’” (Lk 5:3-4) The Holy Father’s mention of the barque of St. Peter is in reference to the Church, which, like a ship, must be governed or navigated as it is hit by waves from all sides, and it is also from this vessel that Jesus taught the crowds, and it is precisely the role of the Pope, the successor of St. Peter, to continue to teach the Gospel as Christ did.
As I have had a chance to reflect on the Holy Father’s humble and courageous decision to lay down the burden of his office, this seems to me to be the wise and prudent decision of a good and holy pastor. In his final act, Pope Benedict is determined, as throughout the eight years of his papacy, to wholeheartedly serve Christ and his Church.
Many secular commentators on this week’s events speak of the Pope as the head of the Catholic Church, but this is not an accurate understanding of his person and office. Pope Benedict in his statements this week has been very careful to stress that it is always Christ who is the head of the Church and that the Petrine office, of which Pope Benedict is the present occupant, is always and in everything, at the service of Christ. This servant–leadership is at the heart of the most ancient papal title: ‘servant of the servants of God.”
In the gospel of St. Matthew Jesus said to Peter and to his successors as the Bishops of Rome:
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. (Matt.16:18)
Peter, the head and leader of the apostles, was the chief witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. His witness to Christ, up to and including the shedding of his blood, is the rock upon which Jesus built his Church. And as the successor of Peter, public witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and calling all men and women into relationship with him has been the heart of his ministry to the Church and to the world.
As I reflect too on this resignation, I am touched by the great humility and faith of the Holy Father. It seems to me that his actions are an acknowledgement that no single person is indispensible for the Church’s mission to move forward, even her chief pastor. His actions express confidence that God will provide a successor who will be well equipped to lead and guide the Church in the coming years. This decision of his is an opportunity to “put out into the deep” and trust the Lord.
The central concern of his papacy has been the New Evangelization, the effort to re-propose the Gospel and the Catholic faith in the western world, which in a few short decades has been rapidly secularized. Building on the teaching and initiatives of his predecessor, he has sought to make the New Evangelization the center and focus of Catholic pastoral teaching and life.
A prolific writer, Pope Benedict wrote three encyclical letters as well as an extended personal essay on Jesus of Nazareth in three volumes. These works reflect his many years of engagement with sacred scripture and theology.
He has advanced, not without controversy, the Church’s ongoing dialogue with other Christians, with the Jewish people, with Muslims and other faiths and with agnostics and non-believers.
He has also guided and shaped the continuing renewal of the Church, and her liturgy, which was the core of the Second Vatican Council.
As we prepare for the upcoming conclave to elect a new Pope, I trust that the Holy Spirit will guide the selection of Pope Benedict’s successor. In communion with him, I am confident that as the Body of Christ, the Church will continue to grow in faith, in our love of God and in the service of our neighbor.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.