Practicing the Self-Gift of Lent: The Resignation of Benedict XVI

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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As we are all aware of now, Benedict XVI will resign from the papacy on February 28 for reasons of health.   Watching the Today show this morning while feeding my newborn son, I was by no means surprised to see the anchors caught off guard by the announcement.   Most are unaware of the number of times that Benedict XVI stated quite publicly that if he was unable to fulfill the office of the papacy because of age or heath, he would resign.  Yet, what was surprising was how incredulous each anchor was regarding both the timing and setting of the announcement.  After all, if Matt Lauer was to resign as anchor of the Today show, he would certainly turn it in a rather large affair, making a public announcement during the Today show itself, and then follow this proclamation with frequent interviews (and a series of navel gazing retrospectives, which the Today show has turned into an art form).  In contrast, Benedict made the announcement to a consistory of Cardinals, on a random Monday.

Nonetheless, perhaps the timing is not so random.   On February 13, the Church will turn her attention to the celebration of Ash Wednesday, entering once again into the season of Lent.   She will fast, give alms, and pray.  And her members, the body of Christ, will be invited to participate in this practice of self-gift integral to Lent.  Each of us will be called to a more authentic relationship with Christ, to give up our worship of the idolatry of fame and fortune, of power and prestige, of pride and self-sufficiency, of violence and force.   Instead, we will enter into the school of Christ, the school of self-giving love whereby we learn that the only way to save one’s life is to lose it.  For to us, discipleship is not cultivating our own honor but giving ourselves away in love, to take up the cross and follow Christ.

In some way, Benedict’s resignation is a sermon on how to practice the self-gift of Lent.   As Pope (those of us who have worked in the Church) know that it must have been daunting to imagine acting once again as bishop of Rome during another pastorally busy Lent, the hurried liturgical  life of the Triduum and the subsequent festivity of the Easter season.  But something more is at stake than a papal admission that one isn’t up to the task this time around.

Benedict XVI’s resignation is a radical witness to what authentic discipleship involves, especially when one is the Pope, when it is entirely possible to choose not discipleship but a cultivation of one’s own ego.  To imagine that you, as the Vicar of Christ, should reign with Christ the King.  And that it is your reign, your personality, your presence that will determine the future of the Church.

Benedict XVI’s resignation is a Lenten proclamation that the papacy isn’t about the personal identity of the Pontiff (even if we must acknowledge that this identity does matter to some degree).  It is a sign of unity, an office standing alone from the individual.  To be pope requires a radical conforming of oneself to martyria, self-gift, the witness of love. Such an office is not the individual’s.  It is the Church’s alone.  Benedict knows this better than any Pontiff in recent memory.  In his many gifts to the universal Church as an astute pastoral theologian (which we will look back at during the coming weeks), it is not surprising that he has transformed his resignation into an occasion for a very personal teaching.   Offices in the Church are never irrevocably one’s own but rather a sharing in Christ’s own self-gift of love.  And at times, the only way to fulfill this office, this primary duty at the heart of Christian discipleship (and in the case of Joseph Ratzinger the ordained priesthood radically oriented toward Christ’s self-gift), is to let go.  In this way, not only has Benedict XVI perfectly embodied the theological function of the papacy in the post-conciliar era, he has also become an icon for all those seeking humility, self-gift in the Christian life.

Very few of us in the Church will have to let go of being Pope.  But each day, we are faced with opportunities for self-gift, for letting go of our office for the sake of love.  During this season of Lent, Benedict XVI has given each of us something to ponder.  The pastor of a parish can see in Benedict’s self-gift a revelation of his own office not as powerful dictator, not as connected to his own charismatic personality, not as boss of a bureaucratic organization,  but as an office lent to him by the Church and fulfilled solely in his growing capacity for love.  The father and mother can look into their rapidly growing child’s eyes and acknowledge that the office of father and motherhood is not simply about exerting influence in the life of another but in letting their child go, even if this gift requires enormous pain and separation.  The heart of every office in Christianity, every duty is love.

Thus, Benedict XVI’s timing isn’t simply an accident.   It’s a kind of Lenten sermon about the need for each Christian, for all those who locate themselves under the banner of Christ’s reign, to give up the search for eternal power.   And to enter more deeply into that office of the baptized priesthood, of that radical self-gift necessary for discipleship in the Christian life.   If Benedict can give up being Pope, then surely I too can give up the power and prestige I attach to being a professor at a prestigious university, to being a father of a rather cute son, to being a mentor to excellent students.   There is one office alone, one office that matters, and that’s Christ’s office of self-gift.

And thus, we have in Benedict a further teaching about the next Pontiff.   The media will begin to speculate about the papabile and their qualifications.   They will wonder, will the next Pope be conservative?   Will he be liberal?   What changes will he enact in the Church?  Where will he be from?   Such questions miss the mark.   Benedict has focused our attention on a different qualification entirely:   can the next Pope give the office up?   Does the next Pope know that his election is not about himself but about the Church?     During Lent, let us pray that the Church will receive such a leader.  And may we ourselves become the sort of people, who can let everything go for the sake of love.

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7 thoughts on “Practicing the Self-Gift of Lent: The Resignation of Benedict XVI”

  1. Once again, sir, you have perfectly stated what I was feeling about the situation. I think you’re spot on with this analysis. Thank you for this piece.

  2. Thank you!
    This is one of the deepest, well-thought-out reactions that I’ve read about Pope Benedict’s decision. And from my alma mater! I’ll be darned.
    Maybe I shouldn’t write off Notre Dame just yet.

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