What the heck does the father of our country have in common with a saint and a pope emeritus? You’d be surprised.
I still remember how I felt when I woke up a few years ago on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and heard the news of Pope Benedict choosing to step down as Pope. As someone who grew up in the JP2 Generation, watching a pope choose to step down instead of waiting until God calls him home was unheard of. I was already in an unstable emotional state at the time and Pope Benedict’s announcement was another rug that got pulled out from under my feet.
When I saw Pope Benedict walk through the Doors of Mercy recently, however, I realized that the decision he made three years ago was not an easy one.
There’s a song from Hamilton called “One Last Time,” which recounts George Washington’s decision to step down after two terms of being president. One particular part of the song stood out to me:
Mr. President, they will say you’re weak
No, they will see we’re strong
Your position is so unique
So I’ll use it to move them along
Why do you have to say goodbye?
If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone
Back in my college days, I had a history professor who joked that the Vatican is one of the last remaining true monarchies in existence. Benedict’s decision to step down made me realize that the papacy is not a monarchy. Like the pope’s Twitter handle @Pontifex, Benedict became a bridge builder, becoming the bridge between the great saint who changed an entire generation and the pope we now have who is spreading God’s love and mercy throughout the world.
Which brings up the question: Why didn’t Pope John Paul II abdicate?
I might be biased because I was born in the 90s, but whenever I see videos or photos of JP2 as he was suffering with Parkinson’s, I don’t see weakness, but strength and courage. To Saint John Paul the Great, the Church was his family. Showing his Parkinson’s to the world opened up opportunities for compassion towards those who were suffering the way he did. I didn’t see weakness in JP2’s last days. I saw a love for the Church and for the world that was stronger than Parkinson’s.
In contrast, seeing Benedict walk through the Doors of Mercy with a cane and an aid broke my heart almost as much as he did three years ago. He wasn’t sick the way that Pope John Paul II was, but he still looked so fragile, it hurt. This is just a guess, but if the world saw this man growing old and frail, it may have validated the secular belief that the church is getting as old and weak as he is right now. Not that Pope Francis is a younger, better model. But Pope Francis is at least young in heart and has a lively spirit that the Church seriously needs.
A Bible verse that George Washington keeps using in his correspondence is from Micah 4:4: “They shall all sit under their own vines, under their own fig trees, undisturbed; for the Lord of hosts has spoken.” This Bible verse gets mentioned in “One Last Time” as George Washington’s motivation for stepping down. I can’t help but think that maybe Benedict wanted the same.
But again, I don’t know for certain why Pope Benedict chose to abdicate. For now, though, I can respect his decision. It takes just as much wisdom to know when to say goodbye as it does to just hold on until the end.
I still miss ya, Papa B.