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Ratzinger's Hardest Choice: Inside The Pope's Historic Resignation

Turns out Benedict XVI had been reflecting on resignation since falling last March. After finally telling the world, the Pope returned to his private quarters where he was overcome by emotion.

ROME - He read out those 22 sentences in Latin with a voice that was weak yet bristling with emotion, destined to change the history of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would be stepping down from the pontificate at 8 pm on February 28. Afterwards, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, gave him a hug. 

Then, with uncertain footsteps, he returned to the papal apartment, where he will live for another 17 days. Here, without prying eyes, he no longer had to hold back his emotions -- and he allowed himself to be deeply moved. Tears streaked the face of an old and tired man. It is the face of the first Pope to resign in six centuries.

Benedict XVI, 264th successor of Peter, leaves the pontificate with an unprecedented announcement. A clamorous decision, taken in solitude, “after having examined his conscience before God.” A decision that came to be after he returned from the March 2012 trip to Mexico and Cuba, where he was met with a warm welcome. However, a fall during the night -- like that in the Italian mountrain retreat of Val d’Aosta when he fractured his wrist -- worried his entourage. 

Joseph Ratzinger had been meditating for some time on his choice. He had already referred to it out loud back in 2010, responding to the German journalist Peter Seewald’s question: “When a Pope comes to the clear awareness of not being able to physically, mentally or spiritually carry out the task entrusted to him, he then has the right and even the duty, in some circumstances, to resign.”

Ratzinger had seen the ordeal first hand of his predecessor, John Paul II, who was plagued by disease. He knew then that he did not want to repeat that experience. He never wanted to be “managed” by an entourage. In October 2002, while still a Cardinal, he received from fellow Cardinal Pasquale Macchi the letter that Pope Paul VI had passed on should there be a case of prolonged incapacity, asking them to convene a Conclave.

“This is a very wise thing to do, that every Pope should do,” Ratzinger had commented. But Paul VI’s scenario was a reference to the debilitating Parkinson’s disease that was marring the end of John Paul's reign. None of this had happened to Benedict, who managed with arthritis and a weak heart to carry out each task. “The Pope is not depressed and there are no diseases,” his spokesman Father Federico Lombardi confirmed.  

“There are no signs of deterioration,” reaffirmed the papal doctor, Patrizio Polisca, with a discreet reference to Benedict’s mental faculties, which remain intact, as he demonstrated a few days ago during his lively exchange with a group of seminarians in Rome.

So, what happened? Why did Ratzinger, before turning 86, come to a decision of such resounding determination, knowing that it would shake the Church, and the world at large?

Beyond the butler

During the interview with Seewald, he'd spoken about his election as Pope “The fact with being suddenly faced with this immense task was for me a real shock. The responsibility, in fact, is enormous. The thought of the guillotine came to me: here it is, now it falls and hits you.”

His papacy has been difficult: an obstacle course, a Via Crucis. Attacks, the economic crisis, scandals -- like the enormity of priest sex abuse -- that the Pope faced with determination. But beyond that there were internal tensions within the Roman Curia. The difficulties and resistance multiplied, and some projects started during the papacy were stalled: from the “reform of reforms” of the liturgy to the peace with the ultra-traditionalist Lefebvrists to ecumenical dialogue. The Vatileaks case brought a distressing reality to light, which went far beyond just the betrayal of the Pope's butler.

More often in the last few years, Benedict XVI had been forced to intervene directly to protect his colleagues, when traditionally in history, the Church was accustomed to the contrary. The difficulties were heavy and the load of the papacy was simply no longer bearable. Two choices that were made in the last few months that help us understand the surprise announcement from Monday: the mini Concistory in November 2012, during which the Pope, while appointing five new bishops on different continents, “corrected” the ceremony of the creation of Cardinals who were over-represented both by members of the Roman Curia, and by Italians; and there was the nomination to Bishop and Prefect of the Papal household of his longtime personal secretary, Georg Gänswein, whom the Pope wanted to make sure was taken care of.

The announcement of the resignation caught almost everyone by surprise. During the last few days, Ratzinger had discretely shared his decision with Dean Of College of Cardinals Angelo Sodano, who was received in audience last Friday, Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, and finally, Gänswein. He didn’t consult with them, he just advised them that the decision had been taken “before God.”

So, on Monday morning, in the Consistory for the Cause of the Saints before the astonished Cardinals, he was able to announce in Latin that he had “come to the certain decision that his strength and advanced age were no longer fit to exercise the Petrine ministry.” He added that he was “well aware” that the Pope’s duties “must be performed with not only words and deeds, but no less suffering and prayer.”

Benedict XVI had waited for a period of calm, after the Vatileaks storm, to announce his resignation. A gesture of freedom, and of humility, that he made asking for “forgiveness for all my flaws," leaving a most difficult task to whomever succeeds him on St Peter’s throne.

This final gesture will contribute in some way to bring, even to the Pope, a dimension of episcopal “normality.” Joseph Ratzinger, the emeritus Bishop of Rome, will wear his red sash once again and will retire in an apartment in the Vatican. Within this walled city will reside the new Pope, as well as his living predecessor, something that has never happened before. This was Ratzinger’s last surprise

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