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On February 11th the anniversary of the “renunciation” of the papacy by Benedict XVI was remembered. On February 28 it will be a year since the end of his pontificate. But in recent days what happened in the Vatican a year ago is ever more mysterious. And what is the true nature of the “retirement” of Benedict XVI.
In previous cases, in fact, popes who resign have always returned to their status as cardinal or religious: five months after he abdicated, the famous Celestine V, elected in 1294, returned to being the hermit Peter of Morrone.
And the legitimate Pope Gregory XII, who, in order to repair the great Western Schism retired from the papal office on July 4, 1415, was reinstated to the Sacred College with the title of Cardinal Angelo Correr, serving as papal legate in Marche.
Given the precedents, the same spokesman for Benedict, Father Federico Lombardi, during a briefing with reporters on 20 February last year, in answer to the question “and if he decides to call himself Pope Emeritus?”, said: “I would rule it out. ‘Emeritus’ is a bishop who, even after resignation, maintains a link ... in the case of the Petrine ministry it is better to keep things separate.”
Famous last words. Just one week later, on February 26, the same Father Lombardi had to communicate that Benedict XVI would remain precisely “Pope Emeritus” or “Roman Pontiff Emeritus,” retaining the title of “His Holiness.” He would no longer wear the ring of the fisherman and would dress in a simple white cassock.
In these days Benedict XVI also refused to change his papal coat of arms, rejecting both a return to the heraldry of a cardinal and the coat of arms of a Pope Emeritus. He will keep the coat of arms of a Pope, with the keys of Peter.
What does all of this mean? Obviously excluded is any personal vanity for a man who has given proof of total detachment from worldly positions (here it involves matters theological, not worldly goods).
So, there can be only a weighty historico-ecclesial reason, probably related to the motives for his retirement (for which so many pressed unduly). But what is this reason?
The only official explanation lies in his speech of February 27, 2013, the one in which he clarified the limits of his decision:
“Here, allow me to go back once again to 19 April 2005. The real gravity of the decision was also due to the fact that from that moment on I was duty bound always and forever to the Lord.”
Attention: I emphasize that expression “always and forever” because the Pope then explained it thus:
“Always—anyone who accepts the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and completely to everyone, to the whole Church (...) he no longer belongs to himself….”
Then he added, and I quote:
“The ‘always’ is also a ‘forever’—there is no longer a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this.”
It is amazing that a statement of this sort passed unnoticed. If words have meaning, in fact, here Benedict XVI says he renounces “active exercise of the ministry,” but the Petrine ministry, as such, is “forever” and is not revoked. In the sense that his resignation applies only to “active exercise” and not to the Petrine ministry.
What other meaning can these words have? I do not see it. Hence we must ask what kind of “resignation” was that of Benedict XVI.
That speech of February 27 seemed consistently to confirm the distinction between “active exercise” and “passive exercise” of the Petrine ministry.
He said, in fact: “I no longer bear the power of office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter. Saint Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, will be a great example for me in this. He showed us the way for a life that, whether active or passive, is completely given over to the work of God.”
To the fact of these words, and the words “forever” and “ministry not revoked,” were then added the acts of which we have spoken, that is, the permanence of the name Benedict XVI, the dress, the title “His Holiness,” and the pontifical coat of arms.
Moreover, perfectly recognized by Pope Francis, who on February 11 broadcast this tweet: “Today I invite you to pray for His Holiness Benedict XVI, a man of great courage and humility.”
This is a totally new situation in the history of the Church. In past centuries, in fact there have been, again and again, conflicts between popes and anti-popes, even three at a time.
There had never been, instead, two popes in communion, who recognized each other in the process. I said “two popes,” considering that one of the two is the previous pope, become “Pope Emeritus,” and that involves a completely unheard-of figure.
What in fact is his theological status? And what does “retirement” from only the “active exercise” of the Petrine ministry mean?
Benedict XVI, speaking to the cardinals before the conclave, anticipated his reverence for and obedience to his successor. This in fact is the attitude of Benedict toward Francis. The communion between the two was made visible when they co-wrote the encyclical “Lumen fidei.”
But it is striking that in their filmed encounter at Castel Gandolfo, as well as in the ceremony held in the Vatican gardens to bless the statue of St. Michael, you see the two men of God who embrace each another as brothers, and from neither of the two the gesture of kissing the Ring of the Fisherman. It makes one wonder: who is the Pope?
Is there perhaps a secret, between them, which the world ignores? Or are they to be considered on the same level? We know that cannot be because the Church’s divine constitution can have only one Pope. But then?
There are new and surprising problems in light of which some may also assign unexpected meanings to certain gestures of Francis, such as presenting himself on the balcony of St. Peter only as “Bishop of Rome,” without pontifical vestments, or the lack of the pallium in his Papal coat of arms (the pallium is now the symbol of the pontifical coronation, having replaced the papal tiara).
Of course people who are now trying to pit one against the other are acting arbitrarily. Moreover, some Lefebvrians and the sedevacantists who question the authority of Francis are equally hostile to Benedict.
The constant prayer of Benedict for Francis and the Church is perhaps the great prophetic sign of this historic moment.
However, one cannot pretend that everything is normal, because the situation is almost apocalyptic. And one cannot avoid the questions: about the reasons for the resignation of Benedict, about how many desired it, about the undue pressure they caused. And about his current status.
In the days following the announcement of the resignation, before he had specified his new situation, even Civiltà Cattolica, like Father Lombardi, had committed a gaffe.
In fact, it published an essay by the canonist Gianfranco Ghirlanda where it was affirmed: “It is clear that a pope who has resigned is no longer pope, and thus no longer has any power in the Church and cannot meddle in any affair of government. It can be asked what title Benedict XVI will retain. We think there should be attributed to him the title of Bishop Emeritus of Rome, like every other diocesan bishop who resigns.”
In any case, not “Pope Emeritus.” But Benedict has chosen to be precisely “Pope Emeritus.” There must be a very serious reason for deciding to “continue” thus. And the consequences are obvious. His are very important signals sent to those who have to understand them, and to the whole Church.
He signals that he continues to defend the treasure of the Church, albeit in a new way. And he seems to repeat what he said during his inaugural Mass: “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”
From Il Libero, February 16, 2014