Today a pope resigns.  Not abdicates or retires, but resigns. The See of Peter becomes the sede vacante -- the Chair is empty.

It would be irreverent if not churlish to begin an assessment -- no matter how tentative and provisional -- of the Benedictine legacy while the current pope remains in office. There will be plenty of time for that. The hours are ticking.

But what is already clear is that Joseph Ratzinger -- who will still be addressed as His Holiness Benedict XVI -- will leave the exercise of the Petrine ministry in a far more dramatic way than when he assumed it nearly 8 years ago. 

Although he will be an Emeritus Pontiff, dressing in the customary white but shorn of a few extras including the red shoes, his presence will be felt. The drama of his leaving ensures the continuing drama of his staying. Whether in prayer, writing, conversing with his staff, including the four consecrated virgins or Memores Domini who will live with him in his renovated accommodations in Vatican City State, Joseph Ratzinger will not be leaving us. He reminded us precisely of that in his general audience address yesterday.

Ratzinger the theologian has always been impressive and remains influential. He published several texts during his pontificate and will, undoubtedly, publish as many as his remaining years allow. After all, more than any other twentieth-century pope, he never abandoned the lure of the academy, never shied from public engagement with other thinkers, never declined an invitation to address a gathering of political notables.

He remains ever the magister and his approach is always magisterial. He delights in instructing but is not always comfortable -- at least in public -- with the similarly important pedagogical craft of knowing how to be corrected. 

The theological axiom that a teaching church is only truly effective when it is also a listening church applies most specifically in the case of its chief pastor.

The tests of a more demanding humility are in the offing -- for both popes, emeritus and serving.



Dr. Michael W. Higgins is CTV's Papal commentator. He is also:

  • Vice President for Mission & Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University
  • Chief Consultant, for “Sir Peter Ustinov’s Inside the Vatican” 6-part series
  • Author of Bestsellers: Power and Peril: the Catholic Church at the Crossroads , (HarperCollins, 2002) and Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making (Anansi, 2006)
  • Author of Award-winners: Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton (Stoddart, 1998) and Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical sex Abuse Scandal (Novalis, 2010)
  • Past President of St. Jerome’s in Waterloo & St. Thomas In Fredericton NB