Prayer and Penance: Did Twitter Hasten Benedict’s Retirement?

In hindsight, we’re seeing clues, now, and reading words he uttered indicating that Pope Benedict XVI has clearly been thinking of renouncing the papal throne for some time.

Forgive me if this sounds absurd on the face of it, but I am wondering if, despite these pieces of evidence, Benedict’s recent entry into Twitter has had anything to do with the seeming abruptness of his announcement.

Before you scoff, consider: the pope’s interest in, and support of, the church’s engagement with new media proves he is not exactly out of touch with the world, but when the Benedict finally logged on to Twitter he got to see firsthand the sort of raw, unhinged anti-Catholic hatred so active within social media threads. We who work in new media experience this hatred so regularly it barely registers with us, but for Benedict, or those around him, it must have been a shocking revelation to encounter the vilest expressions of hatred, the intentional voicings of malice and evil hopes, flung squarely at the Holy Father, in real time.

A hoped-for encounter with the faithful also brought an encounter with something wicked. It exposed Benedict to, perhaps, a reality he had formerly been spared.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying the pope had his feelings hurt. I’m saying he looked into a depth of pain and hate and realized he needed to do something more.

A great deal of that tweeted animosity has been inspired (and earned) by the deplorable scandals of past decades (for which we are due a long season of penance) but no doubt much of it is rooted in nothing more than the church’s obedience to Christ’s commission that she be not only a consolation to the poor, the sick and the marginalized, but also a sign of contradiction to the world and its disorienting trends. I wonder if our sensitive pope looked into the abyss of pain, screaming hatred and ignorance so easily accessed by just a few clicks of a keyboard, and felt called to humility and prayer — a full renunciation of everything in the world, including earthly power and communion with the faithful — in reparation, penance.

Because we know Benedict is an introvert, and we see his tiredness, it is easy to believe that the man simply wishes, as some have suggested, to spend his last days unburdened, “reading and writing’ in an fragrant castle garden.

I don’t think so; During his entire priesthood, the man has not shaken off duties and burdens, but consented to carry more and more. This is who he is.

Increasingly, I believe Benedict’s resignation, rather than releasing himself from a heavy weight, is necessary so he may take on something much more cumbersome.

Last November, in a beautiful, intimate talk to a small gathering of elderly people, Benedict urged, “. . .never feel down at heart: you are a wealth for society, even in suffering and sickness.”

And yet he has seemed down, lately. For all of his recent weight-loss, visible in his face, the pope has seemed in all ways heavier, not lighter.

In announcing his resignation, Benedict said,

…in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to steer the ship of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me…

Nowhere have we heard, either through official lines or “back-channels” that the Holy Father is not fully in his wits. To the contrary, his remarks are as lucid as ever.

As he has done from his first moments as pontiff, Benedict yesterday asked pardon for his “defects” and then said, “With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.” It’s not about him. It’s about the church he serves, as always.

He’s retiring to a monastery within the Vatican. One does not “retire” into monasticism; a monastery is not an idyllic place of retreat, but a full-thrust into spiritual depths. It is where one goes to pray, do penance and — if one is particularly holy and willing — to engage in supernatural battle with things seen and unseen.

This is grave stuff, indeed; a heavy task. My suspicion is that Benedict is not taking his leave of the papacy in order to play his piano and read his books. In the midst of the temporal Lent of 2013, he’s going to be immersing himself in the Long Lent that began for us in 2002, and is with us still.

I suspect he will be doing penance for the church, and for the world — for those of us who cannot or will not do it, ourselves.

He is going into deep prayer, and that is no easy thing. It is, in fact, his last and perhaps greatest act of self-abnegation in a life that has been full of them. He never wanted the papacy, but was obedient to where he was being led. Given that his whole life has been lived in obedience to the Holy Spirit’s lead, we should believe he is being led, yet again, and is meekly — but with paradoxical boldness — going where he would rather not go.

As did Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, Benedict meant it when he offered himself to God in the full rush of love, and said “use me.” As with those two saints, he is being used up to his last ember. It is only my conjecture, of course, but in my gut, I think it is so.

We won’t get to witness the last flames and embers of the 80+-year holocaust that has been Joseph Ratzinger because, as penitents have taken themselves into the desert since the earliest church, to do their separate battle and offer their weary praise, this is between Benedict — carrying the weight of all of our church-wide sins on his back — and the God who has called him.

Pray for Pope Benedict XVI as he becomes again Ratzinger, and — for the sake of the rest of us — willingly takes on a burden he will not shrug off. If he is, in fact, headed into battle for our sake, it is the most heroic thing we will never know about, in a whole life of quiet heroism.

Again in that talk to seniors, Benedict said:

Do not forget that one of the valuable resources you possess is the essential one of prayer: become interceders with God, praying with faith and with constancy. Pray for the Church, and pray for me, for the needs of the world, for the poor, so that there may be no more violence in the world. [Such prayers] can protect the world, helping it, perhaps more effectively than collective anxiety.

So, we must pray for Benedict, and with him. Let us be willing to join our Lenten prayers and fasts to those of this vicar who never swaggers, but trudges simply forward. In this way we can strengthen him, and the church, and the world, in times of great tumult and uncertainty.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • archangel

    IMO… it also gives the greatest hint as to whom the Holy Spirit, through the conclave, will choose to shepherd the church during this time. And, IMO, very few are capable, saavy and dare I say charismatic enough to build on the technological foundations that PBXVI has left us. I can think of one. And it would make perfect sense.

    The fullness of time, indeed.

  • Epicus Montaigne

    This is simply an amazing post.

  • Manny

    Wonderful post, thought I would argue with the title. I would be shocked if the Holy Father saw any of the absuridty on Twitter. Furthermore, even if he did, I would expect that such evil exists and is directed against the Church would not be surprising to him.

  • The FatMan

    I have wondered this myself, Anchoress. I may be mistaken, but wasn’t it St. Faustina who had a vision of a pope, in white robes, climbing over the bloodied bodies of the fallen martyrs? When I first heard of Pope Benedict’s resignation I immediately felt a foreboding of things to come.

  • Dana Laviano

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I said to my colleagues yesterday that “Twitter did him in” and they all looked at me like I was nuts. I was so shocked and horrified by the hideous evil hatred that people flung at him on Twitter (a true writhing abyss if there ever was one) that I wanted to just jump in front of him and protect him from all those ridiculous advisers who wanted to expose him to it. I think you are spot on, Ms. Scalia. You nailed it.

  • Jliving

    Anchoress, thank you for saying what many were already pondering (sadly). Also, Archangel, you’re being very cryptic about who you think the Holy Spirit may be considering:) Could it be a Yankee fan, who began his life as a Cardinal fan, who then BECAME a Cardinal??? That’s who I’m praying for, anyway:-)

    [So very unlikely, although I have no idea who might get the white hat. To paraphrase John L. Allen, history is littered with the ashes of those who thought they knew who would be the next pope. I pray only that the conclave be attuned to the will of the Holy Spirit. -admin]

  • SDG

    I admit this thought occurred to me also; at least, I’ve been troubled for months at the thought of bottom-feeding Twitter hatemongers actually getting their bile in front of the pope’s eyes.

    But it seems likely (and I hope it’s been the case) that, after the inaugural tweet photo-op, Benedict actually had little if anything to do with the Twitter accounts other than writing the initial tweets (probably in English or German). Very likely others translated and actually tweeted them, so quite possibly he may never have seen any of the vile replies.

  • milmarm

    Well thought out and said, Elizabeth.

  • Jliving

    As will I. But in this time of, dare I say, heartache, it’s a bit fun to think about in order to take the mind off of such heavy things. The Holy Spirit will indeed guide the conclave and we will be the better for it. Lent will be even more heavy hitting than usual this year, and Benedict will have every last breath of my prayer!

  • archangel


    BTW- Joseph Ratzinger was also “very unlikely”. Just a thought.

    [People say that, but I've never understood why. I kind of always "knew" Ratzinger would follow JP, as you apparently did, too. I think many expected it, at least if they didn't pay too much attention to the "experts" in the press. You say Timothy. I say perhaps Turkson or Oullette. God's will be done. -admin]

  • Jliving


    So very true….we shall see!

  • Laurie

    I don’t think so. To suppose that the unruliness and ugliness observed on Twitter, FB, and the internet-at-large would cause B16 to retire is a stretch in my mind. To have a strong intellect mind like his requires a considerable amount of discipline. To be pope (or any other leader), you become a lightning rod for the good, bad, and everything in between.

    [All true, of course. But the strongest mind in the world must still, upon getting a sense of the true and depraved trouble our collective souls are in, as demonstrated by such hate for the church, wonder what more it can do in reparation and prayer. -admin]

  • Leticia Adams

    This is the most amazing post ever. Thank you for writing it. God Bless our Papa. I am one of those people who has been refusing to do penance. I needed this reminder today.

  • archangel

    More to the point, I think “twitter” had a minimal effect on PBXVI’s decision. In hindsight, he clearly had thoughts about doing it from day-1. If anything twitter may have provided the final nudge. The man dealt with the NAZI’s directly; I’m sure he saw far worse things in his past than what was being fed to his twitter account. Which leads directly to my personal guess. Much has been made of “the list” and no doubt the nattering nabobs of the MSM will eventually latch on to it like they did the Mayan calendar garbage. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the next pontif will be among the Cardinals that PBXVI made. The American contingent is second in size, next to the Italians, I believe. IF one concludes his retirement was calculated, which I have, ask yourself WHY did he initiate the New Evangelization and then retire just as its being implemented? Why the big push into technology at the same time? He was laying the foundation for his successor.

    IMO, there has been only ONE in the conclave who has gone toe-to-toe with the most “powerful” person on the planet. There is only one person with a personality that could rival JPII at a time in church history when she is in dire need of revitalization throughout the world. That person so happens to have been the point-man for PBXVI when rolling out the New Evangelization. All I know is that the last time we were here, I had a feeling about Joseph Ratzinger and I stated it publicly at the time(believe it or not)… I’m just throwing it out there. I have that same feeling now. All I know is that TIMOTHY fits the label and the times. Regardless, the Holy Spirit is charge. God’s will be done.

  • Jane Hartman

    Elizabeth, I thought the very thing about Twitter. I cannot believe the amount of hatred and extreme awfulness that comes with social networking and I believe this had to be a great shock to him. I think of my 81 year old mother and I wouldn’t even consider exposing her to such raw ugliness that is on Twitter. I pray for our dear papa and I will miss seeing him so much.

  • Sarah Pierzchala

    It will make whatever is coming at us in the months ahead a little easier to bear knowing Benedict will be backing us up through his prayers. Since he won’t be caught up in daily papal duties, etc., he’ll really be able to give it all up for the world.

  • Christine Falk Dalessio

    If you are right, and you very well may be – this sounds fitting in the life of such a man – then a very few of us who pay attention may know, may see a deep witness to a complete gift of self, as he has always given as a lover to his Bride, putting his last years of his aging body still at the service of his beloved in prayer and sacrifice.
    I want him to just have a piano and a cat and a cup of tea. But truly this age is dark, and whether it was the violent hatred on twitter, or a growing observation of the heart of the battle (his interviews in the US, etc), we need to join in praying for him even as he offers his life in prayer for us.

  • Liesa Gonzalez

    I am SO glad to know that someone else, and someone whom I find to be intelligent, sees this too. I posted it on my FB as soon as I heard new yesterday. I’m sure everyone thought I was nuts. You did go somewhere I didn’t think to go; about the spiritual battle he is taking on. That makes a lot of sense to me.

  • Peggy m

    I joined Twitter about a week ago just in order to read the pope’s tweets—I had read about that here, and thought it would be “fun”. Well, I lasted about five days. I cannot handle the hatred directed at him and at us. I am not sure he would be shocked or shaken by it, but it did cross my mind. God bless him.

  • Fr. Josh Miller

    This is why you continue to be one of my favorite writers. Wonderfully said.

    I thought that very thing: in his decline, he turns to prayer with even more vigor and commitment. It may not be the visual sign that resonates with the world in regard to suffering ala Bl. John Paul, but it is no less powerful or significant.

  • Manny

    More than one Manny! That’s a different Manny above.

    As to the Twitter hastening his retirement, I would think he knew what he was getting into when he started it. I can’t imagine it was just one morning a, “hey let’s do this” idea. They probably had some trials and someone must have looked into the ramifications. But you might be right on wanting to save his strength for something intellectual. Get rid of all those burdensome administrative duties and lead a life of prayer and contemplation and write about it. I wish I could do that. Unfortunately I can’t retire at 51. ;)

  • Lori Pieper

    Thank you, Elizabeth. It is pretty much what I myself intuited (except the Twitter part). Pope Benedict, in resigning, is not giving up. He is still in the fight, just going to another part of the field, where the prayer warriors are. May God bless and protect him all his remaining days. When he falls it will definitely be in battle.

    Jliving and Archangel, I too am hoping to hear “Timothy” (Timotheus?) called out from that balcony! A media and internet savvy Pope like no other; one of the most inspiring homilists ever. But God’s will be done.

  • Lori Pieper

    Oh, and the cardinals in Rome absolutely loved Cdl. Dolan’s talk about the New Evangelization. He is starting to get a following there! Who knows. . .

  • Randy

    I don’t think this makes any sense. The pope retired because he felt himself going down hill. I don’t think it was anything new in the world. I think it was something new in himself. He was not up to his usual standards.

    I think the expectation to travel might have played a role. He knew he could not go to Brazil this summer. I wonder if he made this choice back in 2004-5 when he say John Paul II remain in office. He might have seen some things slip by him. He had to deal with whatever was not dealt with or whatever was mis-handled during that time.

  • Dymphna

    Thank you SO much for this post! In my own tiny way, in my own tiny world, I’ve watched, and read three of my relatives spew such horrid vitriol against the Holy Father in the past 24 hours, that I’ve been left hurt, angry and reeling. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Holy Father (or, as you say, those around him) have been woken up to the reality of the level of hatred that exists against the Catholic Church and the Pope in particular. This is a frightening time in which I literally am afraid to express my Catholic beliefs in the public sphere of FB–and the people I speak of are my own family who know my beliefs and choose to publicly disrespect them.

    If Pope Benedict is experiencing this on a larger scale, at the age of 85, in increasing frailty, no wonder he is retiring to a monastery to pray for the Church. He is also making way, as he said, for someone who can take on the more front-line challenges of today’s fast paced world.

  • Gail Finke

    My husband said that last night! He said he wondered if Pope Benedict read all the awful tweets hateful people send and it was just too much. I doubt it, but it could be true.

    I suspect he is quite aware of how much anti-Catholic hatred there is, and of how critical the situation is in the West right now, and probably other things we aren’t privvy to (luckily) and decided that things are so bad that a prolonged (or even a short) illness in the pope would be dangerous. That’s my gut feeling.

    [You may well be right. Again, I'm not suggesting that the twitter hate was "too much" for him. Only that it may have been eye-opening in a profound way, and he may be doing something profound in response -admin]

  • Ciara

    Absolutely beautiful post, thank you so much, it just makes so much sense! Is it ok if I share it on Facebook?

  • Joseph Grodahl

    I was glad to see someone else pondering a connection with Twitter, but you articulated it, and more, far more beautifully than I could!

  • kim

    this is really quite beautiful , thank you

  • Terry

    It wasn’t Twitter – it was Patheos. Mark. Shea. Kat.

    What? ;)

    I’m so kidding! You know how much I love all of you!

    I seriously think he feels he’s not up to it, and on some level he wants to spare the Church of witnessing another dying pope in agony. I wonder if he hasn’t decided to leave now – sparing the Church another prolonged illness, death and period of mourning – permitting a smooth transition. After all, he is German, organized and ordered. I really believe it’s fine to take his statement at face value.

    Though I commend you on this thoughtful post and agree he is taking the Church with him in prayerful retirement.

  • Maria Dolan

    I must share Elizabeth that I can not bear to visit the Pope’s Twitter account. The disturbance of comments there has left me aghast! Praying, always praying!

  • Pingback: Another Roundup of Reactions on Benedict’s Move – UPDATE

  • Sabrina

    Not going to cry, not going to cry, not going to cry…

    In all seriousness, though. What a beautiful soul is Benedict XVI. May the Blessed Virgin obtain a wellspring of graces for him.

  • Charlene

    A beautiful insight that seems fitting for our introspective, wise shepherd. Could I ask, what event occurred in 2002 that began this long Lent to which you refer?

    [The revelation, out of Boston, of the terrible scandal of abuse and coverup -admin]

  • 4girls

    my theory is that Benedict watched firsthand his friend JP2 slowly decline…he was his “trusted right hand”. Perhaps Benedict does not have a “trusted right hand” in the Vatican, i.e..the Butler leaks.
    Perhaps Benedict sees the writing on the wall, that in his physical/mental fraility that is almost certain with age and decline, he does not want to risk things being done in the name of the papacy and church without his full faculties to correct or stop it….there is so much darkness in the world…he has seen it once in the holocause of WW1 and WW2, he has wisdom that I think the world does not give him credit for.

  • Modern Revert

    I obtained a Twitter account just so I could tweet the Pope…then never used it.
    Now I don’t plan to ever use it. Facebook is bad enough.

  • Rachel Gohlman

    Anti-Catholic people, in short, have no idea how horrible they are.

  • Patricia

    What it is, God has clearly called him to it.

    I know many are concerned that this ‘retirement’ may set a bad example for future popes. To that I believe the world will have changed so significantly by the next pope (after Benedict’s Replacment) that it’s a non sequitur.

    Every faithful Catholic/Christian I know feels something really big is coming. Everything in my gut tells me that Dear Pope Benedict knows what that “something” is, of which he has also dropped hints the past two years.

    Sorry to be so doomy gloomy, but Good Friday has to come before Easter, and I think that is where we are all heading, for better or for worse, with Pope Benedict guiding on the sidelines with full devotion.

  • Lorraine Murray

    Let’s not put too dark a face on things! Pope Benedict XVI knows the joy that comes with loving and serving the Lord. I think he will get great joy out of finally being able to spend more time writing — and playing the piano, of course. But as a writer myself, I know that there is no greater gift –and joy –than having long hours of uninterrupted time to write. This is not to say that our beloved pope won’t also be praying –because if you’ve read any of his books, you know that he encounters Christ through his writing.

  • Subsistent

    Regarding “whom the Holy Spirit, through the conclave, will choose to shepherd the church during this time”, it’s well to keep in mind, IMO, Cardinal Ratzinger’s intelligent take (in 1997 on Bavarian television, cited by Brandon Vogt) on papal elections: “Probably the only assurance he [the Holy Spirit] offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined. There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked.”

  • John Burt Polhamus

    “It exposed Benedict to, perhaps, a reality he had formerly been spared.”

    Ah, but is Twitter a reality? I would suggest that it is not, that it is so immature, facile, slight and superficial an exercise of the human mind that its bearing on any event, even as a barometer of real opinion, is irrelevant and negligible. No thinking person pays any more attention to Twitter than to a dustball in the corner. If anything, the Holy Father instantly understood its shallowness, and the meaningless convenience of its interactions, smiled blandly, and moved on back to reality. The kind of reality that results when people stand in one place together for more than thirty words, and achieve a meaningful relationship. The internet is nothing but dots on a screen, which becomes nothing the minute the power goes out, or your attention wanders. Don’t mistake mere scientific technology for reality.

    Beyond that, remember that Joseph Ratzinger experienced the Nazis. Mere Twitter is no way a reality comparable to that. He has been spared nothing.

    [That's why I made a point of saying that I was not suggesting that Benedict had hurt feelings. But I do wonder if he didn't get a sense that profound disorientation needed a profound response. -admin]

  • Cathy R.

    Great post, love your column.
    I think the Pope is very ill & that is why he resigned. Why else retire at the beginning of Lent instead of waiting until after Easter. I dearly hope that I am wrong about that.
    I agree with Archangel, The Pope has dealt with evil and people who hate the church all of his life: Nazi’s, Communists “Moderns” Socialists, Anarchists, and certain “Christians” who are sure that he is the Anti-Christ. Perhaps on hearing the depth of the hatred is now filling him with a deep sense of the need for prayer. I know for myself especially after the election, I have been filled with a similar desire to pray. Not because Mr. Obama won, but because of the reasons people gave for voting for him (abortion, contraception and gay marriage) Really? I mean, Really?
    I will miss B16 I am grieving because this brilliant man will not be pope any longer. I hope he continues to write while in seclusion (I would love to read his meditations).

  • RugbyIke

    Thank you, Anchoress. That was a very inspirational read and I felt moved to prayer at the end. What precious words to bless us with hearing: “Do not forget that one of the valuable resources you possess is the essential one of prayer: become interceders with God, praying with faith and with constancy.”

  • elmo

    I remember reading that Benedict XVI was not composing those tweets himself — that aides were picking them out of his writings — and that he wasn’t directly involved with Twitter at all, even that one question he answered from those that were tweeted to him, was picked by an aide.

    But, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t hear about the horrific vile and repulsive things said to and about him and the Church. He may have even seen some of those tweets himself.

    There are many good reasons for him to step down at this moment: his old age, the power struggles in the Vatican that would only intensify if he through sickness he were unable to lead, his desire to avoid handing on to others what he may have experienced with JPII’s waning days, etc.

    Early in the day, yesterday, somebody said that they wished they had prayed for him more, which was one of my first (and maybe not rational) reactions to the news. Benedict XVI is a warrior — his recent appointments in the United States leave no doubt of that — and if he is retiring so as to do battle for us and the Church then he need our prayers now more than ever.

  • Adam

    Did Twitter shock the Pope’s conscience? Maybe. Then again, all this Papal news finally drove me to look into the stories about the Pope being in Hitler Youth. My understanding is that 1) his family was vocally anti-Nazi, 2) he was forced into the Youth at age 14, as all German boys were, but he hated the meetings and regularly skipped them, and 3) he was conscripted into the German army but went AWOL during training and never went back (the war conveniently ended shortly after). My guess is that Benedict has seen plenty of hatred before, directed by his fellow Germans against his fellow Germans.

    The hatred on Twitter may not be particularly sophisticated in our ever-degenerating society, but I doubt that it’s “new” to him either. Of course, exposure to the screed could have just dredged up old memories for him…?

  • Hands of Fate

    I’m sorry but what kind of fantasyland is this author living in that she thinks twitter would be traumatic to a German that lived through WWII and a confessor who heard decades of confession. Let’s get real here.

  • Margarita

    I knew that it was a wise and courageous decision. I remember a conversation with a priest who had been stationed in Rome and I told him that John Paul’s last years ( however brave and courageous) were leaving the church without an anchor. He was not pleased perhaps he did not realize that some on us are aware that within the Vatican there are always (2,000 years) those looking for influence or an agenda they wish to advance. Benedict saw all of this as he saw John Paul slowly die. What he did was heroic because he knew that an old ill Pope could not cope with this and that it was time a younger man took over. He was a Pope with an intellect that few of us could attain and in his wisdom he will leave us with his legacy as the Pope who put the interest of the church ahead of his own and he can at last retire to a life of prayer and perhaps give us some insight into a life of contemplation in the years he has left. I must say as i look at my own rather jumbled life of family life and adancing age I felt why can’t all of us have a retreat like this in our old age.

  • LiZz

    There’s no way the pope saw any of the tweets that came back at him – he doesn’t have time for that – no I am sure does he even access twitter himself. This is an absurd suggestion that twitter can be implicated at all here

  • Batman

    Great article. I am curious, though, what he means when he mentions the “Long Lent that began for us in 2002″. Can someone help me out?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    My family thinks I am just being medieval. But I refuse to sign up for Twitter or Facebook. From what I have seen on other people’s computers and read in news accounts these two computer sites are Hell on steroids. Why should I want to do anything to give any kind of support to them???– even if some very decent people–like the pope- try to constructively use them.