Some eyebrows were raised when Pope Benedict XVI announced two days before Lent that he was resigning as Pope as of Feb. 28. After all, when a pope is elected as the "Successor of St. Peter", the church expects that he will remain in office until his death. It isn't mandated that a pope is elected for life, but it certainly had become a tradition.
The last resignation had been almost 600 years ago, and that was a negotiated deal. Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415 by agreement in order to end a schism that had divided the church between rival papacies for almost four years.
Benedict made this statement in a 2010 interview, "A pope may resign when he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office. In that case, he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on."
The time had come for Benedict. In 1991, before he had become Pope, he had had a hemorrhagic stroke that briefly affected his eyesight. In 1992, he had a blackout and fell, cutting his head requiring stitches. In 2009, he had briefly stumbled during a service and was caught by aids or would have fallen on his face. On a trip to Mexico and Cuba in 2012, he fell during the night and cut his skull. Then just recently, he required surgery to change the batteries in the heart pacemaker he has had for several years. Also, he has required a rolling platform to get around in St. Peter's Basilica.
Benedict has served 61 years as a priest and almost eight years as Pope. Hey, let the guy rest. If I could add just one more verse to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (the chapter about everything that happens in this world happens at a time God chooses), it would be this: "There is a time to work and a time to rest." But I wasn't around when Ecclesiastes was written, so I had no input. In the case of Benedict, it seems to me that God had made his wishes clear.
"Knowing when to fold it" is not a new issue. In this country, our federal judges are appointed for life. But they're not expected to remain in office until they die. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, was one of the best ever. He is credited with moving legal thinking from formalism to legal realism. His philosophy summed up was: "The life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience." The current court should read that summary every day. Holmes retired two months before his 91st birthday when his brethren on the court, referring to his advanced age, suggested it was time to step down. He had served from 1902 to 1932. When he died three years later, the patriot left the balance of his estate to the U.S. Government.
Kondrad Adenauer served as the first Chancellor of West Germany from 1949 until 1963. When he was elected, he was already 73 and had a nickname Der Alte (The Old One) and was expected to a short-term chancellor. But he served 14 years and didn't retire until he was 87 (politics and a cabinet scandal convinced him it was time to fold it). But, during his administration, he led his country from the ruins of World War II into a powerful and prosperous nation that had achieved democracy (strong anti-communism), stability and world respect. He died three years after retiring. His last words, translated, were, "There's nothing to weep about."
George Burns quit school in the 4th grade to go into show business and had a long remarkable career as a radio, television and movie actor, comedian and writer. He once said, "I have talent I was married to her for 38 years." The talent was his wife and comedy partner, Gracie Allen. When Gracie died at the age of 69, George was 68, and without Gracie, he was almost finished. But his career was revived at the age of 79, and the amiable, beloved character continued to entertain until shortly before his death at the age of 100 in 1996.
Back to the Pope. When he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was known as, "God's Rottweiler." He's not a Rottweiler anymore and he knows it. He probably won't go back to being Joe. I'm sure they will still call him "Your Holiness", and he deserves it. May he enjoy rest, comfort and satisfaction in his remaining years. And his last words might well be that German expression uttered by Konrad Adenauer: "Da jitt et nix zo kriesche (There's nothing to weep about").