Pope Benedict XVI’s greatest act – his resignation – shows the love which the pontiff has for the Church, and his detachment from personal power, says Fr. Robert Gahl, associate professor of Ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
It has been less than a week since Pope Benedict momentously announced his resignation from the papacy during an otherwise routine consistory meeting at the Vatican. The Holy Father’s resignation will take effect on February 28, at which point he will become the first pontiff in 600 years to step down from the Chair of Peter.
Fr. Gahl, a faculty member of the PUSC’s philosophy department, spoke with ZENIT about Pope Benedict’s resignation, and about the forthcoming conclave.
ZENIT: What were your initial impressions upon hearing that the Pope was resigning?
Fr. Gahl: When I first saw the news, I thought it was a spoof, some sort of internet trick, so I sought confirmation. Then, after the first incredulity, as the news sunk in, I felt deep sorrow for the Pope and even sadness that he would consider leaving office. Then, as I read his statement, I realized the depth of his prayer and his love for the Church. I came to appreciate that he is leaving office for love, faith, and humility. He is doing it for the Church, because he trusts in the Lord, and because he is thoroughly detached from personal power and pomp.
ZENIT: Pope Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul II were different and character, yet complimentary. What sort of qualities should the next pope have?
Fr. Gahl: The Church has been especially blessed by the last two Popes. Amazing men. Giants of our time. They have both contributed to strengthening the Papacy on the world stage, to an amazing extent. Blessed John Paul II was a mystic, poet, actor, singer, philosopher, theologian, shepherd, and father. He could stand before millions of cheering followers and soak in the applause while thoroughly aware that the applause was for Christ, for whom he was only Vicar. Pope Benedict is a musician, scholar, theologian, teacher, servant, father, and a humble worker. His greatest act – his retirement – highlights his deep humility and appreciation for the difference between the person and the office of the Pope.
He shirks the applause so that Jesus’ flock may not be confused, that they might direct their approval and affection directly to God. While striving not to direct attention to himself, he has renewed some of the traditional symbols of the office to reinforce appreciation for its sacred charge.
Benedict’s successor must live to the highest standard of exceeding Benedict in vigor, physical, intellectual, and spiritual. He should be an effective administrator, a persuasive teacher, and an edifying priest. In sum, the next Pope must be a CEO, a communicator of the faith, and a devout celebrant of its mysteries.
ZENIT: Some have noted that this resignation is both extraordinary and un-extraordinary. Could you comment on this?
Fr. Gahl: The Pope’s resignation, the following interregnum, and the subsequent presence of a former Pope, are all unprecedented. Epochal in their impact on the Church. For instance, in our understanding of the Pope as father. And yet, the experience is ordinary, because of the simplicity and serenity of Benedict due to his thorough trust in Our Lord. The Church is not lost and is not orphaned. We have a Father in heaven and shortly we will have a new holy father on earth. Benedict has taught the Church to grow deeper in our faith as we face what might have been, otherwise, a deep crisis. Instead, we know that the Church is in very steady hands.
ZENIT: What are your impressions of how the world is responding to the news?
Fr. Gahl: First of all, within the Church, the atmosphere is electric. There is new unity as Christians from around the world are brought together in prayer, love, and affection for the Pope, the future Pope, and for the Church. The unbelieving “world” looks on with jealous amazement. Like the events surrounding Blessed John Paul II’s death and Pope Benedict XVI’s ‘s election, the Holy Father’s resignation and the new conclave will be a cause of greater unity among Christians and numerous conversions. This is a special time of grace. Let’s take advantage of it!