Christian living

Reflections on courage: Observations from Benedict’s resignation

Courageous.  I have read and heard this term numerous times on television and in print during the past week to describe the decision of Benedict XVI to resign as pope of the Roman Catholic Church at the end of February.  Perhaps they are viewing the decision from the perspective of the world’s definition of power.  If you think power is something to be grasped rather than to become the servant of all, then perhaps the term “courageous” is justified.  The Bishop of Rome is one of the most influential people in the world and some cannot comprehend how Benedict could give up that kind of power.

Benedict said in the past that he would abdicate the See of Peter if his physical and/or mental capabilities no longer enabled him to perform the duties of that position.  Faithful to his word, he has elected to step down as his health appears to be waning.  “Courageous” to relinquish such power and responsibility?  Benedict is said to be the “Vicar of Christ.”  So if Jesus defined messiahship (i.e., Christhood) in terms of a suffering servant when the world around him insisted it should be a conquering king, then courageous is the wrong adjective.  Faithful, honorable . . . certainly.  Even visionary, as Benedict actions set a precedent (or renews one?) to place the good of the Church above personal gain.

But courageous?  John Paul II, Benedict’s immediate predecessor, comes immediately to mind as more deserving of such a moniker.  Many who use the term “courage” of Benedict clearly have John Paul in mind.  They think John Paul was selfish or lacked vision when he continued in his papal duties even as his health declined in his final years.  But John Paul emphasized the sanctity and dignity of human life throughout his reign.  All human life, he emphasized, is created in the image of God and has equal worth to God as well as to those who bear the name of Jesus.  This worth extends to the unborn babe within the womb, to the mentally ill or disabled, and even to the physically disabled and the dying.  John Paul rejected abortion and euthanasia.  More importantly, he lived what he preached, demonstrating to the end the dignity of life.  Breaking with tradition, he lived out his final days in public so that we all might hear his message.  That is courageous!  Living what you preach.  Allowing us to see the frailty of life and the dignity by which he lived his final days, rather than receding into the shadows of private life as if the elderly have no worth.  I have noted this previously:

Many have observed the last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415, almost six hundred years ago.  The prior century had been a turbulent time for the church.  Most of the fourteenth century found the Bishops of Rome residing in the south of France, until an angry mob surrounded a cardinal conclave and insisted an Italian pope be elected who would reside in Rome.  The cardinals complied, but almost immediately afterward declared a second man pope, claiming the first was illegitimately selected under duress.  For the next forty years, two men claimed the title pope.  A council in 1409, intending to resolve the issue, declared the two men deposed and elected yet a third man pope.  As neither “deposed” man recognized the council or its actions, this only exacerbated the issue.  Finally, a second council declared the popes who had reigned from Rome to be the legitimate popes.  All others were “anti-popes,” so Gregory XII was the legitimate leader of the Church.  At this recognition, Gregory chose to step down in order to put the entire embarrassing period to rest by allowing the cardinals to select a new pope, one unstained by the struggles of prior decades.

A church leader putting the unity of the Church–his denomination–ahead of his own vision for its future.  A man willing to give up personal power in order to empower others.  Here is an act of courage!  After decades of schism and political maneuvering, would that Baptists had ears to hear and eyes to see.

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