A few of the older cardinals knew something was up. Why a consistory of cardinals on a holiday? The Vatican was closed to celebrate the anniversary of the Lateran Accords and yet cardinals were called to meet with the Pope for the declaration of new saints to be canonized. Their surprise increased when the Pope began an extraordinary and personal pronouncement in Latin. Not all were able to follow the Pope’s words and fully grasp the import of the unprecedented moment.

Never before, in two thousand years of Church history, had a Pope in full authority relinquished his Papacy. True, in 1294, St Celestine V, an elderly hermit, fled Rome soon after his election to evade the responsibilities of the office and, in 1415, Gregory XII stepped down amid the turmoil of competing, plausible claims to the papacy. But never before had a Pope resigned while fully recognized in his authority.

Benedict XVI is nearly 86 and has served as Pope for nearly eight years. He shows his age and often looks tired, some days more so, and on parts of certain days especially so. He has cut back on his schedule. He even reduced the regular ad limina meetings with bishops from around the world, delaying the rotation between the various continents and countries to the point that now quite a few bishops have been waiting years for their chance to report to Rome.

And yet, just a few days before his resignation, Benedict gave a brilliant, hopeful, uplifting, and extemporaneous speech to the seminarians of Rome. He spoke about the role of the Bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter and of the readiness to give one’s life for the faith. Therefore, many ask: why? How can a father resign? Can a holy father give up his office?

Blessed John Paul II had considered resigning when his health failed. Due to his neurological ailments, in his final days, he could not speak at all. And yet, virtually on display as he died, John Paul showed the world his fatherly generosity by embracing the Cross and imitating Jesus by giving his life for the flock. Benedict, too, considered the possibility of resigning and said that no Pope should ever resign when under attack. He should stand strong and stay to defend the Church. No pastor can flee and abandon his flock. But Benedict added that, in the case of failing health and incapacity to fulfill the demanding task, a Pope should consider stepping aside for the Church’s sake. Moreover, Benedict stated that a Pope incapable of fulfilling his role has an obligation to resign.

After prayerful consideration, Benedict decided that, with his advancing age, his capacities are diminishing to the point of impeding the fulfillment of his obligations in a world of “rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith”. With courageous humility and a clear mind before God, he decided to become, on February 28, the first former pope, at least in many centuries.

His children in the Catholic Church will not be left orphans because all is prepared for the election of a new Pope, hopefully to be enthroned before Easter. By resigning, Benedict has raised the bar for his successors. From the next Pope on, they must have the physical, intellectual, and spiritual vigor to face the challenges of our fast-paced world, often at odds with Christian faith. 

Benedict began his Papacy with an encyclical on the God who is Love and spent all of his efforts, these nearly eight years, leading the world to find the Face of Him who is the Word of God, the eternal Logos. He battled the dictatorship of relativism by proposing the freedom found under the sweet rule of reason.

With his resignation, he offers an edifying example of humble service to reason, found fully in the Word of God. Benedict has surprised with his flashes of intellect, theological depth, and simple piety. Now he has surprised us with his resignation. Expect the last 17 days of his Pontificate to bring more surprises that will contribute to our understanding of God and his plan for each of us.

Rev. Robert A. Gahl, Jr., is Associate Professor of Ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, in Rome.