A high ranking “papabile” Cardinal (NOT Cardinal Ratzinger) at the time – some ten years ago – publicly condemned Pope John Paul II’s being in a wheelchair. Had I been next to him, I think I would have smacked him down hard enough that he himself would never be able to get out of the wheelchair that would then become part of his existence. He said this:
“John Paul is such an embarrassment to the Church. He’s in a wheelchair! He can hardly talk! He must be removed. We [some Cardinals] are doing something about this. There are others who could be elected to the papacy. We need to do this now.”
He didn’t say this on just one occasion, but many. You could see hubris rearing its ugly head. I actually think he thought he could do something. I have my own thoughts about the last months of Pope John Paul. Anyway, I’m sure you would agree that there was just a wee bit of electioneering going on there. Needless to say, he was utterly dismayed at the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Hah!
Instead, Pope John Paul gave the entire Church and the world hope with the brave manner in which he faced being ever more imprisoned in his ailing body, but with such a young, enthusiastic — Be not afraid! — attitude. He embodied the sign of contradiction, the cross, the essence of the Catholic Church, giving hope to all who suffer, that their sufferings are not despised and to be hidden as embarrassments, but are the very glory of the One who was ripped to shreds and crucified out of love for them, for all of us. Those who are sick have the highest quality of life, and it must be shown to be such in this world of cowardice before the cross, in this culture of death which would put someone “out of their misery” like any horse with a broken leg. John Paul was at his best in his suffering.
Cardinal Ratzinger knew this, was utterly taken by this, and became all the more extremely devoted to his beloved “papa” on this earth. A good friend in the Roman Curia witnessed this many times, and was in awe of this dedication of Cardinal Ratzinger. He repeated this to me on many occasions. Pope Benedict well knows that this is part of what it means to be the Bishop of Rome, however much he is loves his privacy, however much he doesn’t want to become a spectacle. He knows that our weakness manifests Christ’s strength, and that it is Christ Jesus who would make of any of us a spectacle even to the angels, who rejoice when we, ever so weak, manifest the very strength of Christ Jesus.
And there is nothing that would have hurt Cardinal Ratzinger more than to hear the diabolically evil statements of some of his fellow Cardinals that his great hero, John Paul II, would have to be removed as an embarrassment to the Church. We are all imprisoned in these weak bodies of ours. But there is great quality of life in this imprisonment, is there not? It is Christ Jesus Himself shining out from within us, proclaiming to the whole world that God loves us, the greatest testimony we could ever give to another, from the least known person dying in their poverty and pain to the very Supreme Pontiff himself. Jesus liberates us from this prison of infirmity by providing us with His every youthful enthusiastic life, and then providing us with eternal life, where all such infirmity falls away. Perhaps you may remember my guest post on These Stone Walls, entitled, “When Jesus Was In Prison.” Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI served and serve Christ Jesus, not the opinions of the media, not the hubris of ladder climbers.
But let’s see what now Pope Benedict says of his own health and the reasons for his abdication. The full text of that abdication is here. But in this post, I would to do an analysis of the words he used about his health, which are not really about his health so much as other circumstances. My entire life’s training is analyze such texts. Let’s see what we really have here.
After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. [That is, just like John Paul II in his latter years, but the times have changed since then...] However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith [This is a most extraordinary statement for someone who has followed every single important case in the Roman Curia since 1982... every last one...], in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter [He's not being assisted as he should be. I know for a fact that the buck is being passed to him on extremely serious, extremely complicated matters by those who glibly couldn't give a damn about doing an adequate work for the Lord Jesus...] and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary [He witnessed how the Roman Curia, including the Secretary of State, was willingly out of control when John Paul was infirm, and knows that this is coming upon him...], strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me [He could do it then, but not now, because of the circumstances extraordinarily different from those in John Paul II's last years].
In other words, he would have kept going just like John Paul II, but times have changed quite radically for the worse since that time. It is because of these circumstances quite apart from his health that he has decided to step aside. John Paul gave the witness about the value of suffering, but right now, incisive governance is necessary. I could say much more about those circumstances, but we will leave that to the next successor of Saint Peter, to whom, once again, Pope Benedict XVI will be entirely dedicated.
It is an insult to Blessed John Paul II and to Pope Benedict XVI, still gloriously reigning, to think that Pope Benedict is worried in the least about going through the crucifixion which John Paul II experienced. That would be cynical in the extreme. These Pontiffs are not children. Pope Benedict faces the battle with great fortitude. As I’ve said here and here, Pope Benedict is only intensifying his ministry by becoming a hermit.
Also, just to say, the infirmities experienced by Pope John Paul II are not in any way comparable to any infirmity of Pope Benedict XVI. Not at all. No, no. This is about the circumstances of our present day, so intensified from even eight years ago. If this frightens you, let that fear get you on your knees both in the confessional and in prayer. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of such wisdom. But after that, “Be not afraid!”