When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005 at age 78, I was working at Loyola College (now Loyola University) in Baltimore. A local radio announcer, who was on the air during the late afternoon commute, telephoned me to discuss this breaking news with him on the air. “He’s a little old for the job, isn’t he?” asked the host, who had never met me before. “He’s exactly one month older than I am,” I replied.
“Well, I have to say he looked pretty good all in white there on television when he stepped out onto that balcony,” the radio host remarked a bit defensively. “And did you know he was in the German army and a prisoner of war in the second world war?” he asked. “I may have guarded him,” I said, just to pull the announcer’s leg a bit; “I was in the U.S. army in Germany at that time,” although Ratzinger the soldier had slipped away from military service just before I arrived in his homeland as part of the army of occupation after Germany surrendered in 1945.
I was happy to hear that Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign at age 85. He deserves some downtime after eight years in a terribly demanding job. And he is making an important point for all the world to see, namely, that the papacy is a function, not a person, and that an organization as large and complex as the Roman Catholic Church needs vigor as well as holiness and intelligence at the top.
The mission of the church, Pope Benedict often said, is to proclaim the good news. And that proclamation has to be not only faithful, but enthusiastic. Add to that the need for creativity and mobility in proclaiming the good news and you don’t have far to travel to reach the conclusion that, in this case, the timing is just right.
When he addressed Catholic educators here in the U.S. in 2008, Pope Benedict noted a “reluctance” on the part of many moderns to entrust themselves to God. Entrusting oneself to God involves an act of the will, and this, he said, is a “complex phenomenon and one which I ponder continually.” Well, that pondering has brought him to conclude that it is time to entrust the church to new leadership and himself to the God who holds his destiny in his hands. If leading by example is still a worthy objective, and who would argue that it is not, we have here an instance of exemplary leadership for the whole world to see.
History will, I suspect, judge Pope Benedict’s papacy kindly. His service to the church will continue now in unseen but not insignificant ways. And the cardinals who gather in Rome to size each other up with a view to papal succession will do their church a great service if they remind themselves that servant leadership is what we need. It is the model given to us by Jesus, “who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).
Jesuit Father William Byron is a former president of The Catholic University of America. He is a professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.