Sunday, February 11, 2018

"The Bolt From the Sky," Five Years On

Five years ago today, in the minutes around Roman Noon, the single most stunning and chaotic moment the Vatican beat's ever known broke out.

Following the routine business of a consistory to announce canonization dates, Pope Benedict XVI began addressing the 50 or so gathered cardinals and other prelates in Latin. Not many among the group could figure out what he was saying on their own, but the bulging, racing eyes of one who did – the Papal Almoner Archbishop Guido Pozzo, a once and future top negotiator with the SSPX – betrayed the moment's consequence: seventeen days later, the Pope would vacate Peter's Chair in life, its first holder to resign the office for reasons of his age and health since 1296.

As Papa Ratzinger left the Sala del Concistoro, some cardinals wept, while others wandered around in a daze. As the Dean of the College, Cardinal Angelo Sodano – informed privately by B16 in an audience three days prior – responded for the group, it came as "a bolt of lightning in a clear blue sky." That two separate bolts would strike the dome of St Peter's six hours later (above) merely served to reinforce the point.

The line's been used here before, but bears repeating: for all the attention and analysis that's been given to the iconoclastic style of Benedict's successor, in reality, the ultimate modern redefinition of the Petrine office was the last move made in it by Joseph Ratzinger. Much as it was in pure continuity with the path of the contemporary papacy – following the gradual divestiture of territorial rule, the tiara and (most of) the papal court, and alongside these the development of a daily global presence – the decision to detach the concept of the supreme munus from the duration of its occupant's lifetime inevitably marked the role's most fundamental shift of all. (At least, in recent times – the last time this was an issue, of course, Christianity hadn't yet arrived in the Americas.)

In the months following the resignation – while Francis took the global stage by storm as Benedict quietly settled into his "monastic" retirement in the Vatican Gardens – no less than the comedian Tracy Morgan still couldn't wrap his mind around it.

"It's getting dark out there," the Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock star mused in a late 2013 interview. "The Pope quit. How could that happen?

"You can't resign when you have that position," Morgan said. "God doesn't accept that."

Sure, the post's 264th occupant saw it differently, not to mention the canons. Nonetheless, what began early on that Monday in February broke open a flood of questions, controversies – and, indeed, complications – which haven't begun to be resolved. And as the now Pope-emeritus writes of being on a "pilgrimage toward home" amid this anniversary, but one thing is clear: the issues and effects wrought by Benedict's historic departure will outlive him... and, so it seems, likely his successor, too.

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Here, the video and English text of Benedict's announcement as it happened:

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. 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.

However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, 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.

For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.