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
  • Anne

    I completely agree. Thank you for your insightful reflection. He tweeted uplifting messages of love, hope, and trust in Christ though was met with scorn and venom by a hateful few. It makes me think of how Christ must have felt on the road to Calvary. We must pray for our Shepherds.

  • praiseofglory

    Thanks, Elizabeth. Very insightful post. I believe the Holy Father is likely a victim soul, a white martyr for the Church and for Divine Mercy upon the whole world.

  • NBW

    Elizabeth, thank you for a beautifully written and insightful post!

  • Bro AJK

    Dear Elizabeth,

    Thank you for this viewpoint.

  • Anglican Peggy

    Anchoress, I can agree with you in part. I don’t know where the idea ever came from that Benedict was retiring to play piano and listen to Mozart. This is a patently ridiculous notion when measure against the entire example of his life so far. The life of prayer is the life of a warrior. The battle with the self in voluntary solitude is, by itself, a struggle greater than most people can stomach. But we who believe know that it is not just the self that the praying monastic is battling. Agreed and more than agreed, that Benedict is going into his last and greatest fight and that he does it with the welfare of all in mind.

    But I just can’t buy the idea that it was Twitter that made him do it. Now I understand what you meant by that but I still don’t think this is the reason. I think the reason is more practical. Benedict is both practical and perceptive. I read somewhere else that its possible that it weighs heavily on him that the church might suffer while he declines, as it did during John Paul’s long decline. It is not that he does not value the power and the beauty of JPII’s valiant example. But it could be that he has perceived that the Church cannot afford to lose a step right now when it is running just a step ahead of the wolves that have been hunting her down from the beginning.

  • Manny

    Sorry for a second comment. But it just dawned on me as I read through the comments. I hope the next pope does away with that stupid Twitter account. I don’t think it’s dignified.

  • Anglican Peggy

    PS. Having said the above, I don’t think that B16 will entirely give up cats and the piano and music. But one does not retire to a monastery like one retires to a condo in Florida!

  • Ann

    Wow…what a thoughtful and fascinating observation. It is possible that twitter gave a nudge, but I seem to think he had this in mind even before twitter. And as others have mentioned he experienced the nazi’s and he had to read the toxic reports on child abuse (which he called his Friday Penance)…and then the betrayal of the man who helped him dress and served his food. I am not sure that twitter was any worse than that.

    But it is hard to second guess you Elizabeth, you have always had such insight into the mind and teachings of Benedict. Please don’t stop exploring his teaching on Patheos!

    I am thinking (and hoping) for Card. Ouellette…probably because he reminds me of Benedict. But I love Dolan too. Gosh, I know that I will grow to love whoever the Spirit chooses …but ouch, losing Benedict hurts so much!

  • Cherie

    This morning I was reading about St. Teresa of Avila and how she prayed for a priest who had fallen into sin of “the most abominable kind I have ever heard of; and all that time he never confesseed it or ceased from it, yet went on saying Mass”. Reading your post tonight about B16 retiring to a life of prayer reminded me of that. St. Teresa asked for the priest’s devils to torment her instead. This was granted to her. The priest was released from his temptation, freed from his sin and strengthened in his soul. I could see the Holy Father like St. Teresa using prayer to stand between the devil and the Church he loves. He seems to be like her powerful in prayer, a great writer and a spiritual leader. Maybe one day he too will be a great saint and doctor of the Church.

  • btsea

    Great column! I wanted to hear Pope Benedicts thoughts on whatever the Medjugorje commissions findings are, but I guess that will be left to the next pope.

  • J. R. Pascucci

    Nonsensical fantasy.

    A more sane reason is that he doesn’t trust his Curia to manage things reasonably when his faculties decline. Considering the leaks and general incompetence, I wouldn’t either.

    If anything took the wind out of his sails, it was the betrayal of an intimate.

    I think the best we can hope is the next Pope cleans house.

  • Pingback: Just a Few Years Later « Courtney Allen

  • Jkeogler

    Thank you for your insight and I am hopeful that this truth radiates through the many hearts that are doubting, fearful and angry!
    God Bless.

  • Kathy from Kansas

    Off-topic but response to Ann above:
    I must say I do not trust Cardinal Dolan. The thought of him as a potential Pope rather horrifies me.

  • Pingback: Prayer and Penance: Did Twitter Hasten Benedict’s Retirement? « Just a Plain Jane Catholic

  • Pingback: In Gratitude and Remembrance

  • C. LaSalle

    Thank you for insights which seem logical and based on reason. I agree with Our Pope offering himself as a victim martyr as well. I also believe the Twitter thing was not at all useful. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Media should be at our control, not the other way around.

  • Pingback: There will be ashes, redux | There Will Be Bread

  • Sheldon

    sorry but this is just too much. is it impossible to believe that this man is a human being?

  • Pingback: Was Twitter to blame?

  • Holly Hansen

    Thank you for a beautifully written piece. From a Lutheran praying for Benedict and the next Pope.

  • Ginny

    Sublime thoughts and so well written. Thank you so much.

  • cathyf

    I think that far more important was his experience with the Maciel mess. The Church had all of the information it needed — about sexual abuse of boys, morphine addiction, cultish mind-control practices — to shut Maciel down in 1958. But then the pope died, and it all got lost in the shuffle. Maciel learned well from the experience, and bribed and courted favor among Vatican insiders for the next half century — which paid off during John Paul II’s long decline.

    I think that Benedict is acutely aware of the danger to the Church in the interregnums between popes, and even more the dangers of a pope not fully in control of his faculties. The leakers in the vatileaks scandal all claimed to be motivated by loyalty to him and to the Church, and that they were trying to show the world that Benedict was being betrayed by elements within the Curia. He is not only extraordinarily intelligent, but extraordinarily wise as well — perhaps what this really shows us is that he agrees with the vatileakers…

    Doing it this way means that there can be a very short time of no pope — the pope is fully in charge until the end of the day on Feb 28th, there is no need for mourning or a funeral, the College of Cardinals have plenty of time to make travel arrangements (early enough to get those 14-day advance purchase tickets!), the Curia has plenty of time to make preparations, they can start the election on March 1st. We could have as few as one or two days of interregnum.

  • Josef Wieczorek

    Why are we trying to outguess the Holy Father. He said what he wanted to say, so leave good enough alone. God bless His Holyness.

  • Sara

    I had hoped that Pope Benedict would retire to Bavaria with his brother, a cat and an unlimited supply of orange Fanta, but your hypothesis is much more likely.

    Godspeed, Papa.

  • Fr Ramil Fajardo

    Brilliant analysis!

    I would say – like you – there was a confluence of events that forced Benedict XVI to tender his renunciation.

    But we can’t ever underestimate the dark forces arrayed against the Church. I like your analysis especially for the image that now seems much more clear:

    Benedict is entering the desert like the ancient Fathers, to do battle on behalf of the Church and the Petrine Ministry.

    And this he must do alone, since he alone as Peter had seen the depths of the evil.

    Thanks Elizabeth.

  • Josef Wieczorek

    I don’t care who is to blame. The Holy Father knows what he is doing. Leave him alone. Just pray for him.

  • Alexandra

    Anchoress: just read some of the Twitter comments on his account. Good grief…what vile, ugly messages. Are people so entirely insane, so removed from God, that they can write such hateful trash???? Yikes….

  • FrMichael

    The man survives the Nazis, the Allied air bombardment campaign against Germany, the self-destruction of the Western European Church, catcalls of “God’s Rottweiler,” and the sewer of clerical sex abuse cases that was directed CDF’s way, but Twitter takes him down? I don’t buy it. I’m with J. R. Pascucci on this: he doesn’t want a runaway corrupt Curia functioning during his decline as he witnessed in JP2′s last years.

  • Carrie Dawson

    Ms. Scalia, thank you for the insite and article. Great points to ponder and reflect upon.

  • Victor

    All this stuff about His Holiness reminded me of the good old days when……

    What do ya think sinner vic?

    “IT” is good to be alive Victor! :)

    Go Figure! :(


  • EMS

    I don’t do Twitter or Facebook, so I don’t know what’s on them. But in terms of vile comments, heck the comments’ sections of many blogs and news’ sections contain tons of ignorant and vile comments. Not to mention blogs themselves. Even those of so-called faithful Catholics. I went to one page that had the writings of one deceased person’s “private revelations” that was mentioned on another blog’s site. The revelations themselves seemed to be fanciful imagination, but what scared me was the owner of the site, a “faithful” Catholic. He (I think it is a “he”) actually accused Pope Benedict of being the antiChirst for, as far as I could tell, not doing away with the Novus Ordo Mass. People like him scare me more than anything coming from non-Catholics.