This is my second Lenten Season as a Catholic (third, if you count the one I observed as a conformation candidate), and it is a historic one. Today, Pope Benedict XVI is relinquishing the Chair of Saint Peter. This is not a once-in-a lifetime occurrence, not even a once-in-a-century one. It has been nearly six hundred years since Pope Gregory XII resigned to end the Western Schism. To put that time frame into perspective, consider that in 1415—the year Gregory resigned—Constantinople was still Christian (it would fall to the Ottomans in 1453) and all of Western and Central Europe were still Catholic (Martin Luther’s father hadn’t been born yet).
So, yes, it’s a big deal, and it will take a while, perhaps even a lifetime, to truly understand the implications, but here are a few thoughts.
First, this is a good reminder of the difference between the man and the office. The authority that Christ granted to Peter is invested in the chair, not in the man who occupies it. Starting tomorrow, Benedict XVI, while retaining his papal name, will no longer be the Bishop of Rome. We who make up the Church, clergy and laity, will need to remember that, for however much longer God grants him the grace of his time on earth, he may be Pope Emeritus (that is retired pope), but that is an honorific title only. He is no longer the pope, and today he made that clear by pledging obedience to his soon-to-be-elected successor.
Second, the pope holds the keys given by Christ to Peter. These keys are usually surrendered at death, but his handing them back to the Church reminds us that they belong first and foremost to the Church. Just as Christ handed the keys to Peter, the Body of Christ—that is the Church—hands them to Peter’s successor. The power is held by the Church and exercised on the Church’s behalf by the pope. The pope takes Peter’s place, and only for a short time. No one takes Christ’s place.
Third, this is a rare act of humility for one who holds an office invested with so much power. The pope holds several grandiose titles, like Vicar of Christ and Supreme Pontiff, but my favorite title is the one that says what the papacy truly is, but rarely seems to be given the human failings of its many office holders, the Servant of the Servants of God. Jesus told his disciples not to hold authority like the gentiles do, but to serve like he did. He also said that in the Kingdom of God the last shall be first.
To paraphrase Jesus (in Mark 2:27), the Papacy exists to serve the Church not the Church to serve the Papacy. Taking the Pope’s actions at face value, I hope and pray that this rare act of humility will remind us of the pope’s appointed role in the Church, to serve the faithful and to feed the Lord’s sheep. I also hope and pray that his successor takes this lesson to heart as he leads the flock entrusted to him out of the wilderness of Lent and into the promise of Easter.