Sir, Where Are You Going?

We can't avoid asking whether the highly dramatic resignation of an incumbent pope doesn't conceal the Holy Father's great disappointment with those closest to him.

Betrayal. The pope, according to Catholic belief, is the successor of Peter, to whom Jesus gave the keys to heaven. But just like Jesus, who walked the streets of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, his messenger on earth is surrounded by human beings, passions, desires and disappointments. That's why we can't avoid asking whether the highly dramatic resignation of an incumbent pope doesn't conceal the Holy Father's great disappointment with those closest to him.

The arrest last summer of the Pope's personal assistant, who leaked secret papers from the Vatican, was not only a Roman soap opera. That affair now looks more like an attempt on the part of some of the cardinals to defy the authority of the conservative, rigid German pope. Jesus told the apostles at the Last Supper, "One of you will betray me." The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI sounds like another way of saying the same thing to the people around him, although his chances of resurrection look slim.

An election. Now the cardinals will have to choose a replacement. The elections will be extraordinary for two reasons: The outgoing pope was the one who decided on the precise date, and he will observe the election during his lifetime, something that hasn't happened for almost 600 years. Although every pope influences who is chosen as his successor by appointing some of the cardinals who will choose him, this time the outgoing pope will be present (even if not physically) at the coronation of his successor. It is still hard to say how this almost unprecedented situation will affect the conclave inside the locked Sistine Chapel. But it will have an effect, whether positive or negative.

Faith. Catholic theology renders this surprising resignation paradoxical. If the ambition of every believing Christian is to imitate Jesus to the best of his ability, then that task is especially important for the pope. In that sense, suffering is seen as the way to achieve that "imitatio Christi," not as an excuse to be released from religious tasks. According to Christian tradition, Peter, who is considered the first pope, met Jesus when he tried to leave Rome to avoid being crucified as well:

"Sir, where are you going?" Peter asked him. "To Rome, to be crucified once again," replied Jesus. Peter got the hint, turned around and went back to be crucified himself. This time, his present successor chose to leave Rome, to retire.

History. At night, after the theatrical announcement of his resignation, lightning struck the dome of the beautiful St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. It was a picturesque conclusion to one of the stormiest days in the history of the Church. Everyone understands that the pope's resignation is far more than the outcry of an old and lonely cleric. It is above all an upheaval, and it is still not clear how the largest religion in the world will get through it.

At a time when the Christians in Syria are in danger of being massacred, and the Copts in Egypt are living under siege, it's impossible to downplay the importance of the role of the head of the Catholic Church. Will the Church be able, as it has in the past, to emerge from this moment of weakness stronger and with greater influence still? Time will tell.

Anyone who tends to see history as linear and to doubt the power of the individual to change it will have to think again in the wake of the Pope's resignation. Here we have one person who, in an act that contradicts everything we thought we knew about him, is likely to change the course of history. Because even the pope is, after all – or maybe first of all – a human being.
 

AP