First Place Award for General Excellence, Catholic Press Association, 2013-2016

Historic Pontificate For More Than Its Ending
Editor’s Report
John Woods

It’s been a whirlwind since Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation Feb. 11, becoming the first pope in nearly 600 years to do so. The announcement has brought forward a raft of questions, both large and small.

To help sort through some of mine, and hopefully clarify things for our readers, I spoke this week with Father Thomas Lynch, the pastor of Our Lady of Angels parish in the Bronx and a former professor of Church history at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie.

“In a way this is really unprecedented,” said Father Lynch of Pope Benedict’s resignation. He said he shares that opinion with one of today’s eminent Church historians, Eamon Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge.

The Bronx pastor said it is important to note that Pope Benedict came to his decision of his own accord, without being pressured by others. “He realized for the good of the Church, he was going to resign and dedicate his life to prayer,” Father Lynch said.

“This is new and exciting (for historians),” Father Lynch said. “We haven’t been here before.”

Of course it isn’t the first time that a pope has resigned, even if the last time was 1415 when Pope Gregory XII’s forced abdication ended the Western Schism.

More than a hundred years earlier, in 1294, Pope Celestine V, who was later canonized, resigned after a rocky five-month pontificate. According to a report by Catholic News Service, Celestine did issue a papal bull establishing rules for an abdication, and defined how papal conclaves would operate. He was also imprisoned by his successor, Pope Boniface VIII.

Celestine’s contributions were not lost on Pope Benedict XVI, who declared a Celestine Year beginning in August 2009 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the saint’s birth. According to the CNS story, Benedict twice visited the saint’s relics during his pontificate.

While it may be a bit premature to apply the wide lens of history to Pope Benedict’s papacy, Father Lynch did point to a few elements that are striking right now.

Though he admits he is far from the first to say it, Father Lynch said that Pope Benedict’s pontificate was in many ways a logical second stage or extension of Blessed John Paul II’s. If his predecessor was the great philosopher, then Pope Benedict used his nearly eight years as pope to lay out the theological teachings behind Pope John Paul’s philosophy.

That trait surfaced from the very beginning of Benedict’s papacy, Father Lynch said, when he amplified John Paul’s widely cited words, “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.”

“If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to Him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us?...” Pope Benedict said in his first homily as pope. “And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation…”

Father Lynch said, “It’s beautiful theology. Too many of us are afraid. We can be very afraid like the first disciples.”

As a pastor, Father Lynch said he truly appreciated the messages Pope Benedict communicated in his weekly Wednesday audiences at the Vatican. “They were so rich theologically,” he said.

He explained that the pontiff’s style of teaching and writing did not fit neatly into today’s “sound-bite” world, but “they got you thinking.”

Asked whether he would like to prognosticate about who the next pontiff might be, Father Lynch declined, citing the wise comment of a great Church historian, the late Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, who said that historians should never play the role of prophet.


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