Pope Benedict XVI © Tony Gentile/Reuters
BY RUPERT SHORTT
To many, the news was seismic. No pope has resigned since the fifteenth century. Perhaps, though, the portents of Benedict XVI’s abdication were there all along. Two years ago he told a German interviewer, Peter Seewald, that a pope could step down if he were too physically or mentally frail to do his job. Even John Paul II, renowned for the doggedness with which he pursued his ministry in the face of chronic ill health, is said to have entrusted his private secretary with a resignation letter to be published if he reached a certain level of incapacity.
But John Paul’s mental condition see-sawed. His toughness won the admiration of many; overall, though, the effect on the Church was very mixed. The barque of Peter was steered this way and that by competing Vatican officials, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger among them. The contrast between sclerosis at the top, and the vibrant grassroots of the Church in Latin America, Africa and Asia, looked stark.