‘The Lord is calling me to “ascend the mountain”, and dedicate myself still more to prayer and meditation,’ Pope Benedict XVI affirmed last Sunday at the Angelus. ‘But this does not mean abandoning the Church,’ he continued. ‘Indeed, if God asks this of me it is precisely so that I can carry on serving the Church with the same dedication and the same love as I tried to do till now, but in a way that is better suited to my age and strength.’
This spiritual dimension of the Pope’s decision was underlined by comments that came from England. The Secretary General of the English churches’ official national ecumenical body, Churches Together in England, the Revd Dr David Cornick, of the United Reformed Church, said: ‘I think that Pope Benedict’s decision to step down is courageous and that it is a decision that affects not just the Roman Catholic Church but also the rest of us, because it is made with a sense of human limitation, born up by the grace of God, and that’s something we can all learn from.’ While the Rt Revd Robin Smith, Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Church of England Diocese of St Albans, gave a personal witness: ‘I have met Pope Benedict several times and he has always struck me as saintly, genuine and with a real kindliness. Perhaps the most far-reaching decision he has made is the one to retire as it reshapes the image of the papacy, not least in minds of Catholics, because it is the office not the person that’s of significance. Now we look and pray that whoever is appointed will release the Catholic Church at the local level (that is, the diocese) to make its vital contribution to the life of the world.’
Dr Callan Slipper, a focolarino and a Church of England priest, explained how in his view this decision defines Petrine ministry: ‘prayer and suffering in the first place and then also to act. I thought it’s a good definition of what we all must do to serve others. With his stepping down he will no longer act, but he will continue to pray and suffer on behalf of the Church…. It seems to me to show the Petrine ministry not as monarchical but more truly as the Servant of the Servants of God.’
From the Orthodox Church in Moscow, Galia declared that she ‘felt pain and a sensation of tremendous loss. I hope that this step taken by Benedict XVI will be for the new pope an example of love that does not fear sacrifice. This step of his gives witness to a powerful relationship with God. He did not think of himself, but of the service required of him.’ Jens-Martin Kruse, a Lutheran Evangelical Pastor from Rome, in the Osservatore Romana of 22 February wrote an article entitled ‘Benedict XVI example of faith also for Lutherans’ and he recalled several things done by the Pope that had profound ecumenical impact.
Added to this ecumenical panorama, voices from the Jewish world were added. The Argentine Rabbi Areil Kleiner said: ‘When I found out via Twitter that the Pope was stepping down I realized that were entering a doubly historic moment. I hope that there will soon be white smoke and that the successor may continue on the interreligious paths of Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II.’ While Sonia Kirchheimer declared that ‘beyond what this will mean for my Catholic brothers and sisters, personally, as a Jew active in interreligious dialogue, I hope that Benedict XVI’s successor will carry on along the way of the Second Vatican Council and Nostra Aetate, so that together we can build a more peaceful world as children of the same God.’
In conclusion, the Croatian lawyer Zdravko Dujmović, who has non-religious convictions, wrote: ‘Pope Benedict XVI will leave without a stain on him. It is impossible not to love him and respect him even more for what he has done for Europe today and for all the Christian world. The new pope will be able follow in his footsteps and retire, when he no longer feels he can continue his service. In the early centuries Christians also withdrew into the desert, they fasted to reach contemplation, bearing their spirituality within them… a great man has gone.’