On Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication: a different understanding of dying as sign

From the book, the beginning of the chapter on the sign of dying:

Pope Benedict XVI, Feb 2013

As I mentioned earlier, my father-in-law died a very long and disabling death, suffering mini-strokes that affected his balance, strength, and memory.  After years of peaks and valleys, he moved into his last days at home, with the help of hospice and his family.  My husband broke away from our family travels to fly home and be with his parents and siblings for the last five days.  There was prayer, waiting, brief talking, observation, prayer, sacramental anointing, more prayer, more waiting, steps away to take a brief walk, and more prayer.  Finally, his father died, and hours later, I asked my husband how he was.  He smiled wanly and shook his head in wonder, saying “That was the most intense retreat I have been on in my entire life.”

In a less intense manner for most of us, there was a kind of long, observed dying of Pope John Paul II as well.  John Paul was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease years before his death in 2005.  Over the years, many commented on how he seemed to be dying in a very emphatically public fashion: traveling until near the end, meeting people, giving audiences, allowing the world to see him grow increasingly frail and shaky, a rather active Pope until close to the very end.  There were people who questioned that choice, commenting that he should step aside and allow a healthier man to serve in such a crucial leadership role.  But there seemed to be something very deliberate in this prayerful living out of his final days, a bodily ars moriendi for the world.  When he died in his apartment, many thousands were holding candles and praying in a multi-day vigil in Saint Peter’s Square—and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them named it one of the more intense retreats of their lives.


As Pope Benedict surprised the world by resigning his Papal ministry (technically, abdication) due to the challenges of extreme old age, many have remembered that Pope John Paul II stayed in the Papal office until the very frail end, and some have lamented that we will not see that witness within Pope Benedict’s papacy.  Personally, I respect the Pope’s conscience on this decision, and think that as the human race ages into increasing length of life and mental frailty, this will become more common, if not the norm.  But Pope Benedict is teaching us, by example, a great deal about dying this week.  Renouncing a ministry he has served faithfully for years, for love of the Church, despite considerable old age, is a kind of dying.  Choosing to abdicate (no long goodbye, no last Easter, etc.) and retire to a cloistered setting to devote himself to study and prayer for the Church: that is a kind of dying.  Even making a decision–that is, to abdicate–that he knew would be hard on many of the faithful and almost scandalous to a few is also a kind of dying.

In his few public statements since the announcement, he has underscored that the Church belongs to Christ and he has full trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us toward a fruitful path.  One of the questions animating this chapter on dying as sign is from A. Reimers: “How is the dying body given in love?”  Although it is clear that Pope Benedict XVI has no disease that is in itself mortal, it is also clear: he is dying.  In the largest sense we all are, but he is closer to it than most and is keenly aware of that.  The events of the past few days offer us a touching example of trust and humility and show us, in a different manner than John Paul II’s death, how we live and die by giving ourselves to God.


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