“B16 is pulling a Celestine V!” That text message greeted me at 6:07 the morning Pope Benedict XVI announced his impending retirement. I caught the reference immediately.
As a Penn undergrad, I had spent an entire semester working through Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in professor Kevin Brownlee’s course. In “Inferno,” Dante places Pope Celestine V, the pope who resigned in 1294, in the antechamber of hell for what Dante describes as the sin of cowardice.
At 2:00 p.m. today, Benedict will be the first pope since Celestine to retire of his own volition. In the tradition of Dante, some have accused Benedict of cowardice. Pope Benedict, in fact, made a courageous decision.
Maybe you’ve never considered it (no OCR for this job), but being pope is an incredibly demanding responsibility. A good modern pope travels internationally six to eight times each year, meets constantly with Catholic and non-Catholic religious and political leaders and responds to ongoing questions in the Church and culture by appointing bishops, setting priorities, teaching and, yes, tweeting (@Pontifex).
One needs theological acumen, a propensity for languages (Benedict speaks seven) and the ability to mediate disagreements within the Church and outside it. Indeed, in Pope John Paul II’s spare time, he was instrumental in opposing communist rule in his homeland of Poland.
The Second Vatican Council, which modernized the Church in the 1960s, taught that “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties, of the followers of Christ.” Thus, the Pope’s ministry is truly universal. Pope Benedict has set an important precedent and sent a message to the cardinals that will elect his successor: being the pope in the 21st century requires more than just showing up. It requires leadership and energy that most 85-year-old men simply don’t have. I applaud his decision.
As a Catholic seminarian, I am often asked how I can accept papal infallibility. This wildly misunderstood concept says that the pope teaches without error on matters of faith and morals.
In fact, papal infallibility has only been employed once in 2,000 years. Honestly, how many times per day do we — do I — see ourselves as infallible or irreplaceable? A person’s hard-earned success or position of influence can easily lead one to believe that he is somehow infallible.
By resigning, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed to the world that his office and the mission it serves are greater than the person of Joseph Ratzinger. In this, he has shown profound humility and spiritual freedom.
In a few weeks, the pope talk will cease, a successor will be elected and the Church will continue being a beacon of truth in the world (to many) or woefully out of date (for many others).
Yet, perhaps a man who spent his entire career as a teacher of the Catholic faith has given the world one final lesson: no matter our responsibilities in life, humility before God (or our own good will) and others is essential to freeing ourselves from our own tendencies toward infallibility. Penn prides itself on leadership.
Can true leadership exist without humility? For the 264th successor of Saint Peter, a simple fisherman from Palestine, the answer is resoundingly no. What will the answer of the future leaders of the Church and the world be?
Eric Banecker is a 2011 College graduate studying to become a Roman Catholic priest at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Lower Merion, Pa. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EricBanecker.