POPE Benedict XVI’s resignation this week is an “example of courage”, according to Fr Brendan Leahy, Bishop Elect of Limerick.
The first pontiff to voluntarily leave office since the Middle Ages, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics said his advanced age and declining physical and mental strength meant he had to go for the good of the Church.
“I felt both sadness and admiration for Pope Benedict on hearing of his decision to retire,” said Fr Leahy, who is set to be ordained as Bishop of Limerick on April 14.
“Sadness because it is poignant to hear him speak of his deteriorating strength due to advancing age, his humble recognition of incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to him, and his request for pardon for defects. Admiration for the Pope who has shown yet again that what matters is to put God in the first place in life and act accordingly in honesty and truth,” said the bishop-elect.
“I met him on a number of occasions before he became Pope. I was struck by how gracious, unassuming and courteous he was, and he was very interested in Ireland - he visited Ireland shortly in the 1960s shortly after Vatican II. He clearly is someone very special. Anyone who has heard him speak has been struck by his ability to engage his listeners. He has shown a tremendous ability to think things through, step by step and season his words with wisdom. We can see this in his statement on Monday.
“Through his decision to retire, this man of great learning, theology and culture, has also given us an example of courage, knowing the step he is taking is bound to have implications for the future,” Fr Leahy said.
Rector of the Redemptorists in Limerick, Fr Adrian Egan, described his shock on hearing the news from Rome this Monday.
“I’m very surprised and taken aback. I had no sense that this was coming or that it would be coming because it is unprecedented,” he said.
“You have to go back hundreds and hundreds of years to the last one (papal resignation), I can’t even recall off the top of my head when the last pope resigned. I remember at the time of Pope John Paul II when he was very ill and totally incapacitated, people wondered about him resigning but that never came to happen,” Fr Egan said.
Less surprised was Brother Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal, who said the Pope had made several hints in the past that he might take this action.
“I knew it was going to happen. He had written a book in which he said that if a pope was unable to fulfil their function that they should not continue. Even when he was made pope, he remarked ‘I won’t be with you very long’, which many people took to be a reference to his age but we have now seen what he really meant,” Br Hederman said.
“This is a man who had the experience of being in charge of the Church when Pope John Paul II was so ill that he couldn’t function properly. He obviously learned from that and he has shown the theory that people could die in harness to be untrue.”
Just as bishops were expected to stand down at 75 it was “only logical that popes should do likewise if unable to go on”.
“It is a very important and intelligent move that has come from the only person who could have taken it upon himself to so do, somebody with enough theology and confidence behind them to have considered it and taken the step,” said Br Hederman.
Describing Benedict XVI as “one of the most intelligent popes ever to have reigned”, Br Hederman said his legacy could not be summarised in the type of soundbite required in a media age. It was too convenient to portray him as a conservative reactionary.
“The student riots in 1968 did make him turn from being more open-minded to being opposed to any form of revolution. He was no liberal but has always been liberally misquoted. He wrote three deeply philosophical books on the early life of Jesus and all that was reported was that there were no animals in the crib. And this image of him as the rottweiler is cartoon stuff. One of the most significant episodes of his papacy was the visit to England where, before he went, there was a clamour to have him imprisoned as a genocidal monster but as soon as he arrived he was able to win them all over and was seen as everybody’s favourite grandfather,” the abbot said.