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Six Years Later: Reflecting on the Papal Abdication That Changed the Church Forever

Six years ago today, I was driving to work and I heard a news story on the local radio about Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he was going to abdicate. I remember where I was: driving North on Route 1 in Dumfries, Virginia, just before the WaWa gas station. It was overcast and cold. It might have been raining, or threatening to, anyway.

I got to my office — I was then working as the Director of Community Relations for a professional association — and put together a silly meme to post on my personal blog. (At the time, 1P5 wasn’t even a twinkle in my mind’s eye. That would come about a year later.) This was it:

Thinking back, looking at my initially flippant response, I think I struggled to know what to feel. I was doing some Catholic writing at the time, but I think I was also experiencing a moment of ambivalence towards the Church. My faith had been taking a beating for various reasons, and I didn’t have my head on straight. I recall friends of mine being very worried about what this meant, and me trying to reassure them that if he had decided to do this, there must be some good reason for it.

I remember Hilary White, for one, was adamant in her conversations with me that what had just happened was Very Bad Thing. In the process of writing this reflection, I decided to go back and look at what she wrote publicly about it. Her first post on the abdication, in fact, opened like this:

“OK yeah, here’s the thing… what happened today is bad. And big. Bad in a really big way. And more than I can suss out in a day.”

And later the same day, a post entitled, “After Benedict, the Wolves.” An excerpt:

My sense of foreboding has deepened, if anything, as I’ve weighed in more of the many different things this act of Benedict’s will affect, the various possible reasons, the possible repercussions. Stuck between two impossible obstacles: what I think is true is horrifying and would not be accepted; what I think I can write that would be accepted is not true.

I can’t bring myself to do what everyone else seems to be doing, and put up cheery little stars and hearts notes on Facebook about how we’re all grateful for eight wonderful years and wish him well in all his future endeavours. The thought that keeps coming back to my mind again and again is that now things are going to start getting much, much worse.

Benedict’s was, perhaps, the lone voice on the world stage making a rational case for the Real in the face of an insane, murderous, global mass self-delusion. What was he holding at bay? What is now going to have even more freedom to act in the world? From the things I’ve written about for the last ten or twelve years, I think I’ve got an idea. [emphasis added]

A month later, I wrote a piece for CatholicVote.org about the coming conclave. I still felt sure he had probably done the right thing for the right reasons, but I was becoming aware of the danger. I summarized my thoughts as follows:

In certain Catholic circles, there has been no small amount of alarm over Pope Emeritus Benedict’s abdication, and the possible circumstances that precipitated it. Those who have always looked to Benedict as a dauntless pillar of strength in a very tumultuous period for the Church found it suspicious that he would step down from his duties unless in some way, his hand was forced. To many, he always seemed to be the sort who would carry that cross until his dying day, come what may.

Personally, I’ve never doubted that the Holy Father acted in good faith and of his own volition. Whatever else the world may think about him, there are few who would argue that he is not a man of keen intellect and tenacious adherence to principle. But this does not mean that his decision was not influenced by forces that he feared might overwhelm even his capacity to forestall.

I then quoted an account from Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican of a troubling conversation with an unnamed cardinal he bumped into on the street in Rome. The whole discussion was short, and fraught with tension. It’s worth reading in full:

“Your eminence,” I said.

In his eyes he was saying to me that he could not answer any questions.

But he was not excluding all conversation. And so I ventured…

“I only wanted to tell you one thing,” I said. “That I loved Pope Benedict.”

He stood still.

“I did too, and I do love him,” the cardinal said.

“And so I have been troubled and a bit off balance since February 11,” I said.

And then, as if filled with a sudden emotion, I saw the cardinal’s face grow dark and sad, and he said, forcefully: “I love him, but this should never have happened. He never should have left his office.”

I was silent.

“It is like a man and a woman, a husband and wife, a mother and father in relation to their children,” he said. “What do they say?” It seemed he was asking me the question.

I was silent.

“They say, ‘until death do us part!’ They stay together always.”

So I understood him to be saying that he felt a Successor of Peter should not step down from the throne, no matter how weary and tired, but continue until death.

I felt the words he was speaking were the words of an argument that may have been used even among the cardinals, but of course, that may not be the case.

But I felt that I was catching a glimpse of how at least one cardinal was thinking about the Pope’s renunciation.

“Your eminence,” I said, “I’ve forgotten. Are you already above age 80, or not?

“I am not yet 80,” he told me.

“So you will be voting tomorrow.”

He nodded, and a look passed over his eyes which seemed filled with shadows and concerns. I was surprised at his intensity. I was surprised by the whole conversation.

He squeezed my hand. “Is there anything else I can do?” I asked.

“Pray for us,” he said. “Pray for us.”

He turned as if he needed to go.

“I have to go.”

He took a step away from me, then turned again.

“It is a dangerous time. Pray for us.”

I think we should do as he asked.

It was striking then, and it is even more striking now. There was a certain sense of foreboding, even before we knew what was about to happen, that something wicked was coming. It was in the air, electric, palpable, like the kind of change in air pressure that causes old aches to spring to life upon the arrival of a turbulent storm.

I also wrote:

It is good that we trust in the wisdom of Benedict’s decision, that we believe that whatever the reason, he knew what he was doing. But this should not put us at our ease. I believe in the very core of my being that the cardinal is right. It is a dangerous time for the Church. I can feel it. The forces of darkness are alert, and there is something afoot. What it is, we may never know. But this is far from an ordinary conclave.

Well, we know now. We can never forget. This one decision radically altered the course of Church history. Forever.

As the cardinal said, “this should never have happened. He never should have left his office.”

I think this is true. But had he not done so, the Mystical Body of Christ would not have been jolted to its senses in a way that it perhaps never has been before. Another thing my friend Hilary has often said is that the Church couldn’t survive another conservative pontificate, with all this trouble boiling beneath the surface and everyone acting like it was a new springtime instead. We needed to wake up from the dream. From the lie that all was well. We needed to open our eyes and see the Matrix.

Over the past six years, that has been happening. More and more people are choosing to push away the blue pill and opt for the red. The co-existence of Church and anti-church in the same space is becoming more and more clear. But as greater numbers of the faithful become alert and aware, and the concern and horror over what is happening in the Church — and has happened for the past 50-100 years — continues to escalate, the question burns with even greater intensity: what comes now?

This is an answer only God can give. And despite my dislike for the pope’s constant references to the “God of Surprises,” I suspect it’ll be accurate this time.

I wonder how much longer we will have to wait.

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