Yesterday afternoon, while I was watching CNN News on my computer, out of the blue a small screen popped at the bottom of the screen. The ribbon read, “Breaking story: The pope, Benedict XVI is standing down on February 29, 2013.”) The caption repeated itself in a continuous loop. I couldn’t believe my eyes. “For God’s sake,” I told myself, “popes don’t resign. They carry the burden of the cross until they die.” At least that is what I was told when I was preparing for my First Communion. I’m a Roman Catholic; most of Panama practice this religion. It was a legacy of Spain when they colonized most of Latin America, with the exception of Brazil.
Immediately I clicked to My Yahoo home page where I get most, if not all, my news. Indeed the page was flooded with links related to the resignation of the Roman Catholic pope. I started reading link after link in a state of shock.
During what was supposed to be a routine meeting to discuss the canonization of three potential saints, Benedict XVI read a statement that said, in part, that after examining his conscience “before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of leading the world’s one billion Roman Catholics. He was resigning on Feb. 28, he said, becoming the first pope to do so in six centuries.
The decision, delivered in Latin and in unemotional tones by pope Benedict XVI to a gathering of cardinals on Monday, came “like a bolt out of the blue,” one of the participants said, and it soon ricocheted around the world.
In recent months, Benedict, 85, had been showing signs of age. He often seemed tired and even appeared to doze off during Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, after being taken to the altar of Saint Peter’s on a wheeled platform. But few expected the pope to resign so suddenly, even though he had said in the past that he would consider the option.
As tired and exhausted as he was, I think this was not the cause that led to his resignation. There’s something else that bothered Benedict XVI. This was the continued events of sex abuse scandals that followed him like a virus. Everywhere he went, there were signs of the victims asking for justice from the Roman Catholic Church. The pope thought the problem would go away. It did not; in fact, it got worse, specially in the United States and Europe. Pedophilia among Roman Catholic priests was spreading like a prairie fire. The pope was deeply worried as the practice became pandemic and was smearing the prestige of the Church. The strongest criticism came from the victims of clerical sexual abuse, who faulted Benedict for failing to take stronger steps or, in some eyes, any steps at all.
The surprise resignation of pope Benedict XVI comes as the Catholic Church grapples with demographic changes and social forces that have profound implications for the church’s identity—changes that will weigh heavily on the church’s leadership as it selects its new leader. Benedict was seen as a weak manager, and his papacy was troubled by debilitating scandals, most recently when his butler was convicted by a Vatican court in October of aggravated theft after he admitted stealing confidential documents, many of which wound up in a tell-all book that showed behind-the-scenes Vatican intrigue.
The diverging fortunes of the church can be seen in countless ways. The sexual abuse scandals that cast a shadow over the church in the United States and Europe have not exploded in the same way in other regions. While the church struggles to recruit priests in America, people are entering the priesthood in large numbers in Africa; “the biggest problem is knowing what to do with all these priests,” said Phillip Jenkins, Baylor University history professor, who studies global Christianity. And while the church has been criticized in the West for its stance on gay rights and women’s health, it has not faced the same criticisms in much of the rest of the world.
Who will be the next man to wear the fisherman’s sandals? That is the question the world is asking even as we speak. Many pundits agree it could be a cardinal from Asia, Africa or Latin America. In 1910, two-thirds of the world’s Catholics were in Europe. Today that figure is just 24 percent. “There’s been such dramatic growth in places like Asia and Latin America and Africa,” said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s roughly 1.1 billion Catholics now live in Latin America; another 16 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa, 12 percent in the Asia-Pacific region, and 8 percent live in North America. (Catholics make up about 16 percent of the global population.) The numbers speak for themselves, but we all know how much the Italian cardinals want to reclaim the papacy after they lost it to John Paul II from then Communist Poland.
In the final analysis it comes down to the cardinals who are going to be in that conclave. That conclave is going to be made up 100 percent of cardinals who were named by either John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Every one of them on issues that are important are going to be with the teachings of the church.
In Rome, where souvenir shops often carry more postcards of John Paul II than of Benedict XVI, news of Benedict’s resignation was met with surprise and some sadness. “Anyone could tell that he was old and sick, and that such a complicated situation like the one he has to face is a lot, but I had never heard that a pope could quit,” said Simonetta Piersanti, 52, a cleaning woman in a residence run by nuns.
She mentioned a common Roman saying, “When a pope dies, they just elect another,” which captures the lack of excitement with which Italians greet historic events. “We’ll have to do it even without the death part,” she added.
Now it’s time for Roman Catholics around the world to play the waiting game. Can a cardinal from Latin America become our next pope? We’ll all find out when the white smoke comes out of the Vatican’s chimney—Habemus papam. Good Day.