Pope Benedict XVI has said he resigned the papacy because of frailty, by which he meant weakness of body. This is credible. Certainly, there is no sign – not in 2013 when he abdicated or subsequently – that there is any feebleness in the man’s mind.
In his book-length conversation with longtime friend Peter Seewald (published as Last Testament), the Pope Emeritus says it was the upcoming World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, which he felt he hadn’t the strength to attend – but believed a pontiff must attend – that spurred his decision to abdicate. This is also credible, although less so, given the long history of the papacy.
St. John Paul II inaugurated World Youth Day in 1985. The first WYD in a specific destination was held in ‘87 (Buenos Aires). Each reigning pope has traveled to each tri-annual gathering ever since. It’s good for the pope to be there and, were he not to go, it well may be that attendance would be diminished, although that’s speculation.
Then there are all those papal visits to many sovereign nations large and small, Catholic and not, that have made the former prisoners of the Vatican among the most well-traveled men in history. John Paul II journeyed 104 times, rolling up nearly three-quarters-of-a-million miles over the twenty-seven years of his pontificate. That was a big increase over Paul VI’s nine trips in fifteen years. Benedict XVI made many journeys too in his eight-year papacy, almost at the same pace as his illustrious predecessor, until he said, Nicht mehr.
But where is it written that this must be so – that popes must be peripatetic? Prior to Paul VI, no pope had left Italy since 1809. And nobody in a conclave prior to the 1970s ever thought that among the duties of the pope is a travel schedule that would tax the strength of men far younger than those elected to the papacy.
To wit: I simply cannot understand why Benedict XVI could not have spoken to the young people in Rio via satellite video. Our popes now use technology, including social media, to communicate with the faithful, just as popes once used encyclicals, apostolic and pastoral letters, and radio messages to do so. And let’s face it: face-to-face meetings define papal journeys for only a very few.
When I saw John Paul II in New York in 1979, for instance, it was a passing glimpse of him in the pope mobile heading north on Madison Avenue.
And consider: Leo XIII (pope for twenty-four-plus years) wrote eighty-five encyclicals. Pius X (pope for eleven years) wrote seventeen. Benedict XV wrote fifteen in seven years. Pius XI wrote thirty-one in sixteen years. Pius XII wrote forty-one in eighteen-plus years. John XXIII wrote eight during his short reign, but he also inaugurated Vatican II.
Then came the travel.
Paul VI wrote just seven encyclicals; John Paul II wrote fourteen; Benedict wrote just three; and, so far, Francis has done just two.
We often say that Catholic catechesis has collapsed. Could this be one reason why? John Paul, Benedict, and now Francis have each written books while pope. Good books, perhaps, but, as all writers know, books are time-consuming. And no matter what its quality, a papal book has the same ecclesiastical authority as a papal phone call.
We could use fewer trips and books and more muscular guidance from the Magisterium.
As the life of every pope before Paul VI proves, the faithful don’t need to see the Holy Father in a baseball or soccer stadium in order to know and listen to him. And it may even be the case that all these personal appearances actually diminish papal authority in the long run.
It was glorious to see Poles come out to hear Pope Wojtyla and to hear them chant: “We want God.” And when Pope Bergoglio appeared in Manila in 2015, it was astonishing to see as many as seven-million people attend his Mass at Luneta.
But is the faith in Poland as strong now as it was three decades ago? The evidence indicates that it is much weaker. Is Catholicism in the Philippines as strong today even as it was two years ago? Apparently not.
Worldly wisdom may say that modern leaders, political or religious, must be out among the people. Yet Jesus ascended into heaven nearly 2,000 years ago and His power and . . . charisma remain undiminished. “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?” our Lord asked Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
All the strength of faith that Catholics experienced via papal leadership, from Peter up to Paul VI, had all but nothing to do with laying eyes on the pope.
I am not opposed to papal travel per se. What I am utterly against is the assertion that such travel is essential to the job.
Benedict should still be pope, delegating as many tasks as necessary in order to keep the Vatican and the worldwide faith thriving. Vatican reform is akin to cleaning up the Augean stables, and no pope can handle it alone. But the pope is not CEO of Universal Church, Inc. He is a spiritual guide and teacher for 1.2 billion Catholics. That’s too many to visit – especially so if a pope spends time visiting places where there aren’t many Catholics, as Pope Francis seems intent upon doing.
To be honest, I doubt the prospect of grueling travel is why Benedict resigned. More likely was his fear that with age, his health would fail, as John Paul’s had. Again, speculation on my part.
But if declining health is a reason for resignation – indeed, if that circumstance made abdication a “duty,” as Benedict himself has described it – then why didn’t John Paul II quit? Saint John Paul was genuinely afflicted, remarkably and painfully compromised in his eighties in ways not remotely like Benedict’s condition, now in his nineties.
And John Paul’s dying was a glorious witness of faith and courage.