“I was with the pope on Friday. While his precarious health situation was obvious, there was no sign that he was about to make this decision," said Edoardo Viganò, a longtime professor at Luiss University in Rome and the manager of the Vatican Television Center, of Pope Benedict XVI's decision to announce his resignation Monday.
"This news has truly caught everyone by surprise," Viganò told The Huffington Post, "and I do not believe that there was any prior indication of this from Pope Benedict XVI, except maybe to his closest advisors."
The move is unprecedented in modern Church history.
To understand it, one must consider both the speed with which the social and geopolitical worlds are changing, as well as the advanced age of the pope. Because of this, the decision is unexpected but also the product of a logical and powerful reasoning.
In an interview with Peter Seewald in his book, Joseph Ratzinger was very clear: "A pope has the right and also the duty to resign” when “he is aware that is no longer physically, mentally, and spiritually able to carry out the job entrusted to him.” He excluded resignation in the case of great danger, such as the one described in the book, but not when the church is enjoying a calm period.
Are you downplaying the event’s importance?
I am simply stating that when a pope is aware that he no longer has the strength to carry out his office, one way to serve the Church is to leave that office.
Was the decision somehow foreseeable?
Let’s say instead that he never made a mystery of the fact that a resignation could be expected.
Was he influenced by outside factors, such as recent scandals or the divisions between ecclesiastical hierarchies?
Absolutely not. There is no political strategy behind this decision. This was a private, personal decision of the pope.
Could having a pope leave while still alive affect the outcome of the next Conclave, even if Ratzinger does not take part?
I do not believe this will influence it in any way, except that his presence (or absence) will be noted.
The world’s faithful are now faced with confusion.
The disorientation is normal because of the affection the Christian community has for its leader. One way to confront it will be to join the Church’s prayer in choosing a new successor. Ratzinger’s decision is that of a great innovator, as was that of John XXIII to hold a council only three months after his election. The two older popes were wise enough to make such powerful decisions.
Will Benedict XVI’s choice set a precedent for his immediate successors?
I doubt that this exception will become a rule. But maybe it will make a move like this less destabilizing if it happens again in the near future.
On the other hand, resignation was discussed during John Paul II’s last years.
He was a very different figure. Ratzinger has never been a front man. The two popes were influenced by their own pasts, educations and personal natures. Perhaps only Benedict XVI himself could have taken charge of such a decision.
This piece has been translated from the Italian and originally appeared on HuffPost Italy.