Since Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication (I prefer this term to "resignation," which to me sounds like a career choice), my shock has given way to reflection. Lent is certainly the time for reflection.
When Blessed John Paul II died, I was still an evangelical, though definitely a "high church" one (although small, there is a substantial minority of such believers in the Calvinist tradition). I felt the momentousness of the event nevertheless; I knew almost nothing about him, and yet the force of his personality and devotion to God left such an impression on our culture as a whole that I could not help but pick up on it. I intuited that I was somehow involved in this, that even on the other side of the Tiber, the Bishop of Rome mattered -- and mattered in a way that the local Presbyterian synod or the Archbishop of Canterbury didn't; couldn't; made no claim to.
Benedict the academic theologian has been less popular with the world in general than the energetic, poetic, charismatic John Paul was, though he is dearly loved by myself and most of the Catholics I know. (I could not keep myself from laughing out loud when I read an article in the Washington Post yesterday morning averring that he had "failed to make an emotional connection" with the laity.) Yet his decision was a bombshell. A lot of people are claiming that this sets a significant precedent -- whether they think it a good precedent or a bad one seems to depend on whether they tend toward a progressivist or a conservative attitude toward the Catholic Church.
I'm a pretty impenitent traditionalist myself, but I'm not convinced it sets much of a precedent at all. Admittedly such abdications aren't, and shouldn't be, common; only two have preceded it: Celestine V's abdication in 1294 (the first of its kind, which, in most scholars' opinion, prompted a terrible rebuke from Dante in the Inferno); and that of Gregory XII in 1415, who was facilitating the Council of Florence. Plainly abdication isn't catching.
What is more important is that the office of Peter remains the same, through every change. The man who holds the office is of comparatively small import. If the Catholic belief is right, then it is the Holy Spirit who guides the Church through the Popes, so that who they are (in one sense) matters very little; and if the Catholic belief is wrong, then who the Pope is matters not at all. I will miss the Holy Father deeply -- he is the patriarch under whom I converted, one of the men who (unbeknownst to him of course) influenced me towards conversion, and whose wisdom, grace, and utter devotion to Jesus have truly inspired me. But his successor, whatever sort of man he is and whether I personally like and respect him or not, will equally be the Vicar of Christ.
The news coverage has, not altogether unexpectedly, consisted chiefly of a few neat historical tidbits (often wrong) and total, laughable failures to understand the nature of the Church. Journalists talk about this or that faction and its prospects for gaining control of the Church, as though it were a political office, and as though the papabili were candidates campaigning on the promise of policy changes. Never mind the fact that there are no serious dissensions on doctrinal matters within the College of Cardinals, a majority of whom were appointed by Benedict himself. I sometimes wonder whether the only thing most journalists understand is power. That would not be unnatural; it is what most of the sorts of things journalists report on revolve around. But if my acquaintance with postmodernism has taught me anything, it is to ask questions about the perspective of those who control narratives, and when I look at the media, I see a narrative dominated by people who -- irrespective of political affiliation -- have no conception of what the Church believes about herself. Of course, the mere fact that an institution believes something about itself does not make that thing true; I believe the Church's doctrine and credit her authority on other grounds (which, for the moment, need not detain us). But it does determine the nature of the decisions it makes, true or false. And the Church conceives of herself first and foremost as a family, the Mystical Body of Christ. Family does not translate easily into power politics; and families that do conceive of themselves in such terms, like the Julio-Claudian emperors, have a tendency to meet rapid and violent ends.
My own belief is that the reason the Catholic Church has persisted to the present day is that, even when she was manipulated and abused by her pastors, the revitalizing Spirit kept her real nature from being irrevocably wounded. The Word continued, the sacraments went on; the light was dimmed and cooled, but it never quite went out. Always it rose like a phoenix out of its own ashes. And phoenixes are not widely believed in by journalists. Yet --
"The colors of the Sistine will then speak the word of the Lord:
Tu es Petrus -- once heard by Simon, son of John.
So it was in August, and again in October,
in the memorable year of the two conclaves,
and so it will be once more, when the time comes,
after my death.
Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Ejus.*
You who see all, point to him!
He will point him out ..." -- Bl. John Paul II
"And the Lord said, 'Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren." -- Luke 22.31-32
*All things are naked and open before His eyes.
Preface for Paschaltide
It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God; but chiefly are we bound to praise thee for the glorious Resurrection of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the very Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and hath taken away the sin of the world; who by his death hath destroyed death, and by his rising to life again hath won for us everlasting life.