Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Reflections on the Papal Transition

by Stephen Drees


Photo Credit: Express

It's been only a few months since Pope Benedict's historic resignation, and the world is just beginning to grasp the style and spirituality of Pope Francis. With the benefit of some perspective, I'd like to share some thoughts on Pope Benedict, as well as our new pontiff and what it means for the Church.

A pope resigning (instead of dying in office) has happened only a few times in the 2,000-year history of the papacy. Why did Pope Benedict do it and what is the significance? Of course, the secular press just couldn't help prognosticating that there was some big scandal, or perhaps he was "forced" to resign by the unruly Roman Curia.

While only Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) knows the reason for his resignation, on a few prior occasions during his pontificate he had spoken publicly about the miracle of today's modern medicine. The good news is it can save and transform lives. The complicated outcome of this is modern medicine's ability to prolong life way beyond a person's ability to fully function.

For someone living out their senior years in privacy at home or in a facility, this is one thing. Living a compromised life while head of the largest, oldest and most complicated organized religion in the world is another. Long before he was elected pope, and during the 25+ years of Pope John Paul II, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served in the second most powerful position in the Church.

His tenure in these two positions is akin to serving as vice president and president for a combined total of 33 years. This would take its toll on anyone. Most popesdodie in office and Benedict saw his friend and predecessor John Paul II hang on to the end. However, during the last several years of JPII's papacy, he was infirm and not in total control of the Church - unable to address some serious issues, including the priest scandals that erupted during this period.

Benedict was turning 86 and knew that some time ago his age and health had begun to significantly diminish his ability to lead the Church, which is arguably one of the hardest jobs in the world.

His stepping down showed a personal humility - a Benedictine humility - and a desire to pull the Church into the 21st century in the hope of creating a new tradition - one where an aging pope can step down to make room for a younger person to take on this awesome responsibility. I, for one, think this was a positive development and a courageous and selfless decision on the part of Pope Benedict.

Now I segue into my personal connection to all of this and my affinity for Pope Benedict….

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope, he immediately and instinctively took the name "Benedict" and credited his papal name selection to none other than St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism. Having grown up in Bavaria - which is rich in monasteries, the future pope was very familiar with Benedictine spirituality, monastic prayer and Gregorian chant.

I recall reading that, as a young diocesan priest, he became an oblate of a monastery in Germany and made retreats there over many decades - even while he was pope. While John Paul II was a formative figure in my personal faith journey, it was during Benedict's pontificate that my initial interest in, and study of, Christian mysticism and monasticism took root. This culminated in my novitiate, formation and profession as a Benedictine Oblate two years ago at Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

So for these reasons, this old, brilliant and humble pope will always be near and dear to me. As the first "Pope Emeritus," he will spend the rest of his life in prayer, within a monastery and, for security reasons, one within the walls of Vatican City. There he will immerse himself in monastic prayer for the Church, Christianity in general, and the world at large. His life and priesthood have come full circle. How fitting!

As for Pope Francis, all I can say is wow! The first Pope in history to take the name of "Francis." A Jesuit with the heart of a Franciscan. A simple, devout, orthodox, yet pastoral soul. In a very brief period of time, he has captivated the imagination and hearts of many.

Betting against the resiliency of the Church has always been a bad wager - and still is. The Church, founded by Christ and handed down to the apostles and their successors, has shown and proven time and again that, in spite of human sinfulness and weakness, the heart and the soul of the Church and its teaching are of divine origin.

As the 266th successor to Peter, Pope Francis will carry the Church into its next chapter. While watching and following whoever is pope at any point in time is interesting and lends itself to opinions and discussion, it's never really about "the man." The pope is only a caretaker.

What's clear to me is the Church has been and will continue to be led by the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised His Church and that gave birth to the Church on Pentecost.

The Church lives on. Be not afraid!

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.