WASHINGTON — "After having repeatedly examined my 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 the Petrine ministry," stated Pope Benedict XVI in a Feb. 11 announcement that stunned the globe’s 1 billion Catholics.
Not least among those dumbfounded by the news were the U.S. bishops, some of whom were appointed by the octogenarian Pope. But while the news of the Holy Father’s imminent resignation provoked surprise and sadness, they also expressed their gratitude for Pope Benedict’s leadership during a tumultuous era and declined to speculate about the reasons for his decision.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement shortly after receiving word of the Pope’s plan to leave his office on Feb. 28, characterizing it as a sign of his paternal care for the Church.
"The Holy Father brought the tender heart of a pastor, the incisive mind of a scholar and the confidence of a soul united with his God in all he did," said the cardinal.
"His resignation is but another sign of his great care for the Church. We are sad that he will be resigning but grateful for his eight years of selfless leadership as Successor of St. Peter."
Cardinal Dolan noted that Pope Benedict was already 78 when he was elected pope during the 2005 consistory following the death of Blessed John Paul II, yet the German-born Pope maintained a demanding schedule of global trips, public addresses and a steady output of encyclicals and exhortations, as well as the three volumes of Jesus of Nazareth.
Immediately preceding his election, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made headlines when he addressed the College of Cardinals and warned of an emerging "dictatorship of relativism." The strong statement, said many commentators, hinted that if he were elected pope he would engage the world without apologies.
Indeed, the scholarly Pope Benedict quickly made his presence felt within the Church and without, and Cardinal Dolan expressed the hope that this legacy would remain secure in the years ahead.
"Those who met him, heard him speak and read his clear, profound writings found themselves moved and changed. In all he said and did, he urged people everywhere to know and have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ," said Cardinal Dolan.
Added the cardinal, "Our hope impels us to pray that the College of Cardinals, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, choose a worthy successor to meet the challenges present in today’s world."
Cardinal Dolan noted that the Pope made religious liberty and the rights of persecuted religious minorities a centerpiece of his pontificate.
Pope Benedict "visited the religiously threatened — Jews, Muslims and Christians in the war-torn Middle East, the desperately poor in Africa, and the world’s youth gathered to meet him in Australia, Germany and Spain."
In 2008, the Pope traveled to the United States, where he earned applause for his clear, heartfelt apology for the Church’s failure to promptly remove priests who sexually abused children.
"We are deeply ashamed, and we will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future," he said.
Cardinal Dolan also recalled the Pope’s "stirring, private meeting at the Vatican nunciature in Washington," where "he brought a listening heart to victims of sexual abuse by clerics."
‘A Message for Eternity’
Like most U.S. Church leaders, Cardinal Dolan noted Pope Benedict’s tireless crusade to defend the inconvenient "eternal truths" of the faith.
"Some values, such as human life, stand out above all others, he taught again and again," observed Cardinal Dolan, who described the Pope’s legacy as "a message for eternity."
And while some critics have asserted that the Holy Father’s defense of Church teaching on marriage, contraception and women’s ordination has reduced the appeal of Catholicism in a modern era, Cardinal Dolan said the Pope had "unified Catholics and reached out to schismatic groups in hopes of drawing them back to the Church. More unites us than divides us, he said by word and deed."
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago echoed that judgment in a statement that affirmed the Pope’s consistent efforts to teach "with clarity and charity what God has revealed to the world in Christ."
The Pope, said Cardinal George, "has handed on the apostolic faith; he has loved all of God’s people with all his heart."
Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, the archbishop-emeritus of Baltimore, said he "was privileged to be with the Holy Father this morning when he announced that he would resign as Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter." The news, he said in a statement, presented an opportunity to reflect on the Pope’s distinctive role in global affairs. In his 2008 address before the General Assembly of the United Nations, where he defended the universality of human rights across political systems.
"A staunch defender of human rights and those religiously persecuted and a champion for the dignity of all people, the Holy Father has offered a much-needed voice for morality and good in a world where both are far too scarce," said Cardinal O’Brien.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, during a press conference after the announcement, described it as "an enormous surprise" to him.
But he did not speculate about the reasons for the Pope’s resignation and simply described the decision as "a sign of the great humility of this Pope, his love for the Church and his courage."
Focused on Faith
Cardinal Wuerl said that when he saw the Pope a month ago he witnessed no evidence of any health problems, and he observed that last October the Holy Father had ably led the lengthy Synod on the New Evangelization.
"Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy is his engagement of faith with the modern world. He has called on all of us to focus on the spiritual mission of the Church, proclaim the Gospel and once again bring this personal relationship all of us are capable of having with God back to the foreground. … He declared a Year of Faith to remind all of us that there is a basic doctrine that is bedrock for Catholic faith."
Cardinal Wuerl is one of 10 American cardinals who are of voting age (under age 80) and will be part of the conclave to elect a successor to the Chair of St. Peter.
During a Feb. 11 press conference, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore described the Pope as "a profound and loving teacher of the faith, a courageous defender of human rights and dignity and a man of prayer, humility and wisdom."
Archbishop Lori said that when the news about the Pope’s resignation was verified during a call with Cardinal O’Brien, "I did think back … to times when the Pope had said publicly that if he ever reached the point when he felt he didn’t have the stamina for the job he would resign."
"My second reaction was to slip into the chapel and say a prayer for Benedict and the Church."
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia drew attention to the Pope’s impact as a theologian.
"From his work as a young theologian at Vatican II to his ministry as universal pastor of the Church, Joseph Ratzinger has served God and the global Christian community with intelligence, eloquence and extraordinary self-sacrifice," said Archbishop Chaput in a statement.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco noted that the Pope’s "lifetime of tireless and selfless service to the Church … includes more than 60 years as a priest."
"Those of us who know him and who have watched his whole life unfold in service to God," said Archbishop Cordileone, "can see that this decision to step down was motivated by his own discernment of what best serves the good of the Church."
Pope Benedict’s Legacy
In the weeks ahead, the deep well of gratitude for Pope Benedict’s legacy will help sustain the Church, the U.S. bishops suggested, even as his courageous witness as a teacher and defender of the faith helps to guide the search for his successor.
At his press conference, Archbishop Lori was asked to outline the qualifications for the next pope. And while he quickly noted that he was not a member of the College of Cardinals and thus would not take part in the consistory, he expressed the hope that the next pope will "first and foremost ... be a faithful, loving teacher."
The Church, he concluded, should be led by "someone who has a pastor’s heart, capable of embracing 1 billion people from every culture and every language on earth."