Retirement of a Pope

Pope-Benedict-XVII am not Roman Catholic, nor do I have any family connections to the Roman Catholic Church. I am a Lutheran, a Mainline Protestant living and serving in 21st century America. Because of this fact I have a different view on Christian faith, theology, the church and world than my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers do. That is not to say we differ on all matters – Christian theology and practice are shared across the whole church (or at least should be).  I’ve learned a lot from my Roman Catholic colleagues and personal friends who I consider as close as family. As a Lutheran Christian I don’t believe that I answer to the pope. I believe our shared unity in Christ is much bigger than our human institutions.

Even though I am not Roman Catholic, I must confess to my infatuation with the office of pope. Administratively I cannot fathom the pressure and stress of leading an organization of now close to 1.2 billion people. Serving as the Roman Catholic Church’s primary preacher, teacher, and ambassador to the world the pope’s role is simultaneously symbolic and actual – rich in history, faithfulness, human frailty, and witness. Even though I have no connection to the pope by affiliation or confessional allegiance there is a unique voice the pope has on behalf of all Christians that cannot be denied. Like others, I pay attention when the pope speaks; not because I feel obligated but because I respect the magnitude of his position within the whole body of Christ.

What does it mean when the pope wants to retire?

On a human level I understand both the need and desire to retire. When a person is in their mid-eighties, maybe one no longer has the energy for international travel, long days, constant media attention, endless meetings, deep and unresolved controversies, leading daily mass, and everything else that goes along with the job of being pope. That is not to say one cannot do it or be effective at it if one continues to feel called to it and energized by the work, but I can see why at some point enough really is enough and retirement starts to look good.  That Pope Benedict XVI has the self-realization to admit that he is not up to the job anymore, all I can do is pray for him and wish him well.  I hope others will too. Rowan Williams retired as Archbishop of the Anglican Church recently and those who cared about it at all seemed to let him retire gracefully. Perhaps we could allow the same for another of God’s servants who has given his whole life to the Church.

There is however, an opportunity presented in Benedict’s retirement typically not afforded the Church when a pope dies in office. People will not be in mourning. There will not be the need for pastoral care for so many people who feel close to the pope when he dies (whether they have ever met him or not) and the conclave will not need to move filling a void of a family without a father figure. Instead, the mood can be celebratory, reflective, and political (in the best sense of the word). I hope our brother cardinals who have been given the responsibility of electing a new pope will see Benedict’s retirement as the opportunity to do some hard-thinking.

I am not a cardinal, and am not Roman Catholic, so I am not proposing what they should do. But if I were on the call committee entrusted by the entire global network with the task of seeking a new primary leader I would want to do some soul-searching around the following three areas:

Who can lead the Church through the ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal?

The current hierarchy and last two popes have lacked both a sense of urgency and an understanding of the depth of pain this violence has caused throughout the world. That is not to say that people have not taken it seriously and put forward an effort, but not in the fact-finding, peace-seeking, justice-minded way that still needs to be dealt with openly and directly. A leader is needed who can guide the Church out of back room conversations that “settle things” and into relationship with the public, in the justice system of the local state, can communicate culpability, work with others to initiate a systematic response to rebuild trust, and is willing to create future preventative measures. A pope that can both empathize with the pain caused by Church leaders and articulate his own outrage that this was allowed to happen in the first place has the opportunity to be an agent of healing while standing at the cross in our time.

Who can lead the Church in the increasingly secular west?

The next pope must embrace the reality that the Church’s voice has changed in the western world from resonating at the center of society to becoming increasingly marginalized and scandalized. Simply because the Church or its pope speaks does not mean people will either listen or respond (which is also true of all faith communities). A new pope must engage this world not only from the depth of tradition and theology but also out of caring enough to listen and understand where and how people live in today’s secular digital age. All Churches have long taken for granted that we have voice within western culture and society. As Church leaders of any sort we must now earn that right. A pope that understands that sea change has the opportunity to engage people both inside and outside of the Church effectively.

Who can lead the Church that is increasingly global and non-western?

There may be a symbolic nod to lifting up non-European leaders as potential candidates, but the real mettle of a new pope will be tested when whoever gets elected to the office is in conversation with Church leaders outside of Europe and North America. There are different issues and questions of engagement in places where the Church is growing, where Islam is the predominant religious voice, and where populations have been mistreated by westerners over the centuries. A pope that can engage other cultures and empower his leaders within that culture can transcend the typical view of western colonialism that has personified western dealing with the rest of the world. A pope that can listen and learn something from them can do even more.

Closing Thoughts

There are many other challenges the next pope will face. In North America our ongoing deliberation around technology, social issues, interfaith interaction and economic disparity continue to weigh on our thoughts. As the Roman Catholic Church discerns and deliberates who they will call to serve in its highest office as the successor of Peter it is my view that to engage any of those issues effectively will first require leadership that can move the Roman Catholic Church through the clergy-sex abuse scandal with honesty; identify the changes in western society in order to engage its own people and the wider culture with a renewed voice; and can receive the non-western Church and world in the spirit of partnership and collaboration. In short, to be effective the pope must be a servant leader who is steeped enough in its tradition and piety to step out beyond the safety of its walls and take risks while standing firmly on what he believes. This change in leadership is what many Church leaders of every stripe are learning to do as we lead our congregations to better engage our communities outside the church building and empower our people for ministry. As the Church of Jesus Christ in all its forms we have a message that is neither arcane nor irrelevant – God has entered the world in Jesus Christ to redeem it from itself. We are part of his body, crucified and risen because God so loved this world, and because he first loved us. In the midst of that which we cannot fully understand the Spirit still blows and is still at work among us – all of us. My prayer for our sisters and brothers within the Roman Catholic fold is that whoever is elected pope can discern the Spirit’s movement and as he leads and speaks stay near the cross that leads to new life. We could all use a little guidance and encouragement for the long journey ahead.

Pastor Geoff
For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:9-14)


By Cavan Sieczkowski, 02/11/2013


About geoff sinibaldo

Follower of Jesus, Husband, Father, Son, Friend, Change Proponent, Goofball, Seeking Faithfulness in the 21st Century
This entry was posted in Church & Mission, Thinking About Church Differently. Bookmark the permalink.