By Douglas Anele
When in April 19, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was crowned Pope Benedict XVI after the death of much-beloved Pope John Paul II, observant followers of events in Vatican City knew that the new pontiff had a lot on his plate. To start with, the Pope himself was well aware that he had to work extra hard to match, and if possible surpass, the achievements of his predecessor who was selected despite criticism from some disgruntled highly-placed Italian Catholics opposed to the election of a non-Italian Pope.
Again, halting the rampaging global march of secularism which threatened the very core of religious belief (including Catholicism), expansion of the Knowledge of Jesus Christ, revival of the faith, and defense of orthodox catholic doctrines on life and family were top on the new pontiff’s to-do-list right from the very start. During his tenure, Pope Benedict XVI dealt with specific problems and scandals that rocked the pillars of catholic ecclesiastical authority and constituted a formidable obstacle for him to effectively execute his quiet evangelical mission.
These include: (1) his citation of negative comments against Prophet Mohammed which angered many muslims; (2) numerous cases of sexual abuse by catholic priests in different parts of the world; and (3) accusations that Pope Benedict himself, as an Archbishop in Germany, failed to adequately monitor and sanction a priest abuser.
Despite these challenges, the Pope was determined to forge ahead. He took bold concrete steps to reconcile catholics and muslims, and initiated respectful conversation between the Vatican and the Islamic world. The acme of his effort was in 2006 when he prayed alongside a muslim cleric inside Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.
On the issue of sexual abuse by catholic priests, the Pope tried his best to reduce the damage caused by the scandal. For instance, in a letter to Irish catholics, he personally apologised to the victims and announced measures meant to placate them and reassure the faithful that such misbehavior will be severely dealt with. Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered also for his efforts to stem the crisis of faith in the contemporary world which, according to him, was responsible for social and moral ills that plague human societies.
In his opinion, the crisis was due to people’s reluctance to acknowledge the truth that comes from God. As a panacea, the out-going pontiff insisted that Christians should see their faith as a religion of love in which believers are willing to accept God’s love and share it with others, in the full awareness that true love entails making sacrifices for peace.
Christianity, he maintained, is the path to salvation, social justice and genuine happiness. It must be remarked that Ratzinger’s ascension to the pontificate was a reaffirmation of the trend that led to the emergence of Karol Woytila (Pope John Paul II) from Poland, which vindicates the position that the papacy is not the exclusive mandate of Italians. Ratzinger was Pope John Paul’s right-hand man and confidant for over twenty years. Therefore they must have influenced each other profoundly, particularly in doctrinaire catholicism.
Their lifestyles were remarkably similar – meditative, humble, and simple to the point of asceticism. The two Popes travelled extensively, and each issued hundreds of speeches, homilies, and encyclicals in order to promote the catholic faith, peace and reconciliation worldwide. Before he died, Pope John Paul II forgave Ali M. Agac, a Turkish national who shot and wounded him shortly after his election; similarly Pope Benedict XVI pardoned his butler, Paolo Gabriele, who leaked confidential Vatican papers to the press last December.
However, in terms of orientation and style, John Paul II was poetic and intuitive whereas Benedict XVI evinces a more analytic and theoretical disposition. This might help explain the fact that in spite of his failing health, Pope John Paul II persevered to the very end, whereas Pope Benedict XVI chose to retire.
According to the retiring Pope, he had “deteriorated to the extent that I have to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” Obviously, Benedict XVI thought deeply about his impending resignation, and must have felt the angst people feel when faced with momentous decisions that would profoundly affect their lives.
Through creative imagination, one can appreciate the heavy burden his decision to leave office entailed, especially considering the fact that the last time a Pope abdicated was about six hundred years ago when Gregory XII quit because of serious internal schism within the catholic church.
We commend Pope Benedict XVI for boldly and frankly acknowledging his inability to carry on with the onerous duties entrusted in him by his exalted position. It takes a man of wisdom, spiritual integrity, uncommon selflessness, and respect for others to step away from the privileges, pomp and pageantry of the papacy and become a monk.
So, everyone should learn some lesson from Pope Benedict’s decision. Political leaders who hang on to power at all cost, especially those incapacitated by age, disease, or severe personality flaw should realise that all earthly power and authority is transitory and that it is silly to jeopardise one’s health because of power. In Nigeria, late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua clung to power for too long despite the fact that he was physically incapacitated to discharge his duties.
More recently, according to media reports, governors Sullivan Chime and Lyell Imoke of Enugu and Cross River states respectively were absent from their duty posts for several months due to undisclosed ailments, and did not consider it appropriate to relinquish their positions. There is no good reason for clinging to power tenaciously in the face of serious health challenges. Most probably people that do so utterly misconstrue the essence of power.
But in the true sense power is a privilege to serve others. Life is too short, too precious and irreplaceable for anybody to risk one’s health for power. Thus a sensible person would never jeopardise his or her health merely to enjoy the ephemeral trappings of power. In this connection, I salute Pope Benedict XVI for his wise decision to step down from his exalted position as the spiritual head of over 1.2 billon catholics.
Even as an unbeliever strongly convinced that religion is a relic of man’s humble superstitious beginnings, I cannot but admire the audacity of his choice, which clearly shows that a decision reached after sincere and deep soul-searching contemplation should be followed through irrespective of the sacrifices one has to make in the process. I wish Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger the very best in his future undertakings