My hairstylist asked me what I thought about the pope’s resignation. A lively discussion ensued.
Speculation and rumor have been companions to the resignation of Benedict XVI. While Benedict said he was resigning due to a loss of “strength in mind and body”, many believe that the cascade of scandal during his pontificate influenced his decision. Others think that the Curia (the cardinals who help govern the Church) forced Benedict out. Some queried the pontiff’s motives, arguing that with his resignation Benedict would be positioned to influence the selection of his successor.
Benedict’s resignation interests me for reasons other than the intrigue filtering down from the Vatican through the media. The text of his announcement takes us beyond innuendo to an essential truth of human experience – our mortality. At some point, the aging process summons us to recognize our diminishments, and begin the process of detachment.
Benedict stated, “both strength of mind and body” have “deteriorated in me to the extend that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” There is a compelling wisdom in this honest admission of decline; beyond the admission, there is the example of resigning one’s self to the realities of aging.
In a culture that worships at the altars of youthfulness and physical vitality, it is no small matter to recognize and accept one’s decline. We take measures, like coloring our graying hair, to conceal the visible signs of aging. We balk at using a cane, and refuse to surrender our driver’s license long past the point of prudence. We express our fear of cognitive impairment, laughing at lame jokes about “senior’s moments”. We do not want to admit, let alone accept, our diminishments.
This resignation also points to a process of detaching one’s self from worldly things. At the pinnacle of clerical success, with the privileges of a head of state, and the status of a celebrity, Benedict relinquishes some of the most sought after signs of success in the world – power, authority, privilege and fame. In our consumer society, where the accumulation of wealth, material possessions and the good opinion of others has become a virtue, this resignation reminds us that we go out of the world the same way we came into it – with nothing.
In stating his wish to serve the Church “through a life dedicated to prayer”, Benedict moves from an active lifestyle to a more passive, yet no less vital, way of being. While the movement from action to passion accompanies profound change at any stage in life, at an advanced age it helps us to reflect on our mortality, and to prepare for our dying.
My intention in this column has not been to venerate or defend Benedict XVI. While I have not been a fan of the conservative direction of the Church under this pontiff, and the scandals grieve me, Benedict’s resignation resonates with truth, and deserves my respect. Whether or not the speculation and rumor have any basis, the truth, symbolized in this resignation, is that eventually we have to accept our graying hair.
Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at email@example.com