This is the Room of Tears: the place where popes traditionally retire after being chosen. Here, they contemplate the burden they are about to assume: a 2000-year-old office founded by Christ himself not on a book or a government or a place, but on a man named Simon, thereafter known as Cephas, petros, rock: Peter.

It’s an impossible burden only upheld with the aid of the Holy Spirit. It’s likely that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wept when he retired to this room, for he truly did not want this office. A quiet, scholarly, humble man, he had labored in the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith for many long years, and wanted nothing more than to retire quietly to Germany and write.

But when the Holy Spirit calls, you answer. All of us serving in the faith know that, none so well as he did. Some gnashed their teeth and railed when he was chosen to assume the office of Peter. I didn’t. After my return to the faith, I read Cardinal Ratzinger closely and came to love the man, his wisdom, his clarity, his charity. He was the master catechist of our age, and as one called to the catechetical ministry, I felt a connection to this pope that I never had with Bl. John Paul II.

He is the person I admire most in the world, now more than ever when this man caricatured as an “arch-conservative” (and who anyone with eyes to see knew was nothing of the sort) has once again done something bold and unexpected. He has recognized his limitations, and acted accordingly.

There are those who will point to Bl. John Paul II who suffered and bent under the burden of the Petrine office as illness consumed him. They will be right to do so, because it was a powerful witness to the dignity of human life. It also affected the way he managed the church, and as the abuse scandal exploded, that was something we could ill afford. Perhaps this potential for failure loomed large in Benedict’s mind when he made this decision.

He will never again be just another man. What he will be is, right now, uncertain. After being Pope, Cardinal, Bishop, Father, Professor, I think, for a little while at least, at the end, he wants to just be Joseph.

May God bless and keep him in this and in all things, and may He continue to guide our Church.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    Thank you so much for this beautiful reflection and for getting it out so early on a Monday morning.

  • Shawnbm

    Joseph–well, that Patron Saint of the Universal Church is surely interceding on behalf of the Holy Father who shares his name. I have been saddened and angered by the intentionally misleading portrayal of this pontiff since 2005. His books on Jesus were evidence he was a pastor of his flock and that the three great theological virtues stood at the center of Christian aspiration. If being a conservative Catholic means adhering to the Deposit of Faith in teaching on faith and morals, then the Holy Mother Church needed a return to a more grounded faith, in ideals and is practice. May God continue to bless him as he lives out the rest of his earthly years.

  • Dave

    The NY Times piece this morning was disgusting. If a giant bolt of lightning leaves a smoking crater where the Times building used to be, you will know why.

  • Alice

    Very well said. Thank you.

  • Jeannie

    Thank you for this lovely reflection. My admiration for our wonderful pope is great, filled with love and respect. My own faith has grown and deepened as I have studied many of his writings and followed his leadership of the Church. May the Holy Spirit work mightily as the conclave convenes and bring us another humble, holy father to guide us to greater, deeper faith.

  • Maggie

    Such a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing–a nice contrast to another post I read by another blogger which was essentially a complaint about his resignation.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Thank you all for the compliments.

    It was a shock this morning, but my confidence in the Holy Spirit, the Church, this office, and this man is firm and deep. It would be absurd to admire the wisdom of someone as much as I’ve admired him, and then doubt his ability to make such a momentous decision. He’s been signaling the possibility of this decision for a long time.

  • Jim Anderson

    Thanks for a great article, Thomas. I didn’t hear the news until AFTER I got out of Eucharistic Adoration, at noon, central time. I work nights, so had to sleep in. I agree with you, Pope Benedict XVI
    has been an amazing Pope, with all of his writings, books, and so on. I admired his strict adherence to
    orthodoxy. Let us all step up the prayers for him, for Holy Mother Church, and for the next Supreme
    Again, thank you for this article.

  • Dave S

    Well said. He did NOT want the office. He must have underestimated what the College though of him. I thank him for his comportment, his visits to the NY area (my children saw him) and for his liturgical focus. JP2 the mystic; Benedict the teacher.

  • Joyfully

    Me too. I never would have read anything by Cardinal Ratzinger, a German theologian, if he had not become our Pope. Since his election I have read a half dozen in addition to his encyclicals. I thank God often for asking His Servant to be His Vicar on Earth.

  • I M Forman

    Love this Pope. I hope his successor will be someone that the N.Y. Times does not like. It would mean that the Holy Spirit will have the Church pointed in the right direction.

  • Mary

    Eh, it’s not like it’s a unique occurrence. Surely there are many reasons why.