I make no pretense of passing judgment on the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Although a baptized Catholic (by Cardinal Cushing of Boston, no less), I have accidently missed Mass for the last, oh, 55 years or so. If I ever went back and went to confession, the next in line would have to wait for a year.
I also make no pretense of judging Benedict’s policies on, or responsibility for, the sexual abuse by priests, opposition to birth control, condemnation of gays, or refusal to admit women to the priesthood. We can have all those fights another day, and I daresay that Benedict may eventually be judged as wrong on all of them.
Nonetheless, I admire what the Pope has done in resigning his office, scheduled to take place later this week.
I have a pal whose mother is 91. His father died six years ago, so his mother lives alone. Last year, while driving, she sideswiped three parked cars. The police came to the house and took her license away. The family has various financial interests (they own a shopping center) and his mother continues to run these, sending out rental invoices on an old typewriter and paying the bills. But of course, she has become increasingly forgetful, can’t recall what bills she paid and when, and so on. It is the same situation with her investment portfolio, savings and other financial affairs, right down to the electric bill at her home.
On top of that, she is cantankerous and views with suspicion any attempts to help her.
What is my friend to do? He could go to court and attempt to be named guardian, but the fact is, he loves her. He doesn’t want to be in an adversarial position with her. All options have been explored, including in-home help. She is adamantly opposed.
For obvious reasons, most of us don’t like stepping aside. Look to the world of sports for myriad examples of great players who didn’t know when it was time to go; who hung on and tarnished their own legacies.
Many of my clients are elder law attorneys who see (and help with) these sorts of situations every day.
The Pope, at age 85, has wisely recognized that he lacks the physical and mental strength to deal with one of the world’s most demanding jobs, and he has found a way to gracefully step aside, despite 600 years of tradition (that’s how long it has been since another pope resigned).
The words of Benedict to residents of a Rome facility for the elderly a couple of months ago hint at his upcoming decision:
“I come to you as Bishop of Rome, but also as an old man visiting his peers. It would be superfluous to say that I am well acquainted with the difficulties, problems and limitations of this age … At times, at a certain age, one may look back nostalgically at the time of our youth when we were fresh and planning for the future. Thus at times our gaze is veiled by sadness, seeing this phase of life as the time of sunset.”
Bravo to Pope Benedict for not clinging to power, for not standing in the way of the energy and strength that younger man might bring to the job, for becoming again Joseph Ratzinger. And may his action be an inspiration to other seniors, who could benefit from letting go of the burdens and responsibilities they have carried for so many years.