Yesterday morning I was coming home from mass and I discovered a message on my phone. A friend who works in an office in Rome wanted some help translating something and when I got home could I please connect to skype. I got home, connected to skype, and there was no sign of her. I emailed her, and got on with reading my emails. Suddenly, she appeared. El papa acaba de renunciar, said the message. The Pope just resigned? I must have misunderstood. My Spanish has been going downhill fast lately through lack of practice, and that didn't make the slightest bit of sense. But a quick check of the BBC website and there was the headline, without even a picture, the news was so unexpected. The Pope had indeed just resigned.
The years of Benedict's papacy have been important ones for me. I was worried when he was elected. Worried, but mostly ignorant. All I knew about this Ratzinger was what I had heard from some cousins in Munich, and the BBC, none of whom were particularly keen. But after that came an important retreat, conversion, a pilgrimage to Rome, questioning my vocation, discernment, 3 years in community, more discernment, and whatever it is that I'm living now. These years have been filled with Pope Benedict's writings: I devoured Jesus of Nazareth, skipped through The Ratzinger Report, struggled through In the Beginning. I read encyclicals for the first time in my life, reflected on homilies and discussed general audiences. And when he came to the UK I didn't sleep for three days between Westminster Cathedral, Hyde Park and Cofton Park (which due to the bizarre travel arrangements required travelling up and down the country twice, but least said, soonest mended). From the other side of the world, I watched all of his addresses during World Youth Day 2012. I would not lay claim to being his actual no. 1 fan (that accolade definitely belongs to another friend who not only predicted his election (easy call) but also that he would take the name Benedict) but I love this Pope. There are only three books on my Amazon wish list: Jesus of Nazareth, volumes 1, 2 and 3. I am constantly amazed by the way he can speak so simply and humbly about such complex and profound truths. And in recent attacks on the Church, on Marriage, on life and humanity itself, as well as hate and vitriol directed at him personally, Pope Benedict XVI has been there, taking it all, and strengthening the rest of us.
I am glad that everyone has been shocked by this news. I trust the Holy Father, he is not one to shrug off responsibilities, and he is a man of prayer. If he says that he is not strong enough, then he is not strong enough, and it is a decision he has made in the silence of prayer and in the light of God's plan. The reason I am glad to be shocked is that such a momentous decision should not be leaked out, speculated on, guessed at, should not be known until such time as the Pope himself chooses to announce it. And this is the Year of Faith. What better time to put absolute trust in God than in this year and at this time, and what more evidence do we need that faith is what God is asking of his Church right now? So, let us ignore the speculation, the assessment and re-assessment of Church teachings, the calls for a young/old/liberal/conservative/African/politically correct Cardinal to take his place, and get on with praying for Pope Benedict XVI in the last fortnight of his papacy, and also for the holiness of his successor.