A Lesson in Humility
Holy Cross Professors Share Perspective on the Pope’s Imminent Resignation
Published: Friday, February 22, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2013 15:02
February 11th witnessed a momentous occurrence for Catholics all over the world when Pope Benedict XVI publicized his intention to resign at the end of the month, an action unheard of for nearly 600 years in the history of the Church. Such a significant event of course catalyzed an explosion of media coverage, and certain media outlets turned to papacy experts at the College of the Holy Cross for their views on the matter.
National Public Radio (NPR) called upon Rev. Thomas W. Worcester, S.J., a professor in the history department, and Professor Mathew Schmaltz of the religious studies department, to share their perspectives on the pope’s decision and help make sense of this unique occurrence.
A professor at Holy Cross since 1994, Fr. Worcester teaches a class titled “Papacy in the Modern World” and has co-edited The Papacy since 1500: from Italian Prince to Universal Pastor, a compilation of original essays on the evolution of the papacy in the past 500 years.
Schmaltz has been a professor in the religious studies department at Holy Cross since 1998 and directs the College Honors Program in addition to these teaching responsibilities. He has been a regular contributor to The Washington Post blog “On Faith” for four years now.
In NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Fr. Worcester spoke with host Melissa Block about the history of papacy, recalling the last time a pope resigned from his position as the time when Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415 to save the church at the time of the Great Western Schism.
He shared with listeners who tuned in, “The first thought I had was it has indeed been a very long time and that Benedict is quite courageous to do this because he didn’t have a good precedent for it. I mean, he now establishes a precedent that I think could be healthy for the church, but, yeah, I mean, you can say there was not a healthy precedent for a papal resignation.”
Fr. Worcester, who has spoken to the media before regarding the papacy, especially in 2005 when Pope John Paul II died, received the call to go on air on Monday when the pope made his big announcement. I had the opportunity to speak with him about his radio experience and ask further questions about his understanding of this momentous occasion.
“I guess I was totally surprised,” Worcester stated of his initial reaction to the big news. Though he recalled a speculation that something like this might happen when Benedict was initially elected pope, he had no idea how soon that guess would become reality.
Worcester describes Pope Benedict as “more comfortable in a library than on stage,” a more private person than his predecessor, who did not hesitate to live out his final days on the world stage. He comments that we should all find it in ourselves to respect and understand the pope’s choice, and realize that the church needs someone younger and with more strength. “I think we should take him seriously when he says it’s for the good of the church.”
Benedict’s decision not only provides for the greater good of the Church, but also offers a significant lesson to the Catholic community who calls him Holy Father. Fr. Worcester reflected that there is a certain humility and self-awareness in his decision, “paying attention to what he can do and what he can’t do…he finds it the right thing to step down before he’s too infirm to function.” His decision exemplifies courageous humility, and can teach us likewise “to be honest about our capabilities and what we can do and can’t do.”
Schmaltz experienced a similar reaction to the incredible news, expressing his initial reaction simply as “Wow.” Still recovering from the jet lag of a recent trip to India, Schmaltz heard the news at the early hour of 5:30 a.m. and immediately set to work writing an article for The Washington Post and soon received a call from NPR for a phone interview.
He opens his article for The Post with an acknowledgement of the profound implications of Pope Benedict’s decision, “While there have been resignations in the papacy’s past, letting go of papal power has never been framed in such a powerful way.”
He explained to me to concept of this letting go as “a powerful spiritual statement in any context. With regard to the Holy Father’s decision, I think he showed a tremendous amount of courage and awareness of his own limitations.” Though his predecessor chose the more public path, Schmaltz lauded that decision as equally exemplary, explaining that “it is also a very powerful witness when a pope, like John Paul II, perseveres in office through the pain and suffering that age and infirmity bring.”
He elaborated on the lesson that we can take from Benedict’s decision, “I think Catholics should focus on how the Papacy’s significance is much more important than one person — Popes are elected, serve, and then retire or pass away. The office endures.”
Regarding the effect that this action may have on the Church as she moves forward, Schmaltz speculated, “I think it will be interesting to see whether retirement or renunciation of the Papal office becomes something that Popes are expected to do when they reach an advanced age. If it does, then the public profile of the papacy will change—relatively more youthful and active popes will perhaps deal better with the media.”
The Pope intends to formally resign on February 28, and the conclave to elect the new head of the Church will meet sometime in mid-March. Benedict may have directed the Church toward a horizon of change, and Fr. Worcester and Professor Schmaltz share the intelligent opinion that he has his people’s greatest interests in mind when doing so.