One is struck most immediately by the differences between the ends of John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s pontificates. John Paul II chose to serve to the very end, despite his declining health. Benedict XVI chose to resign from the papacy because of his declining health, because he thought he would not have the strength to execute the office appropriately. I think, however, that we could find an underlying commonality of purpose in these two different decisions. Each pope, in his own way, has tried to teach us something important that is often lost under the influence of contemporary culture.
Both John Paul and Benedict were critics of the modern world. I don’t mean that they rejected the modern world. On the contrary, both were influenced by Vatican II’s spirit of engagement with modernity, and both acknowledged that many good things have come to human beings in the modern world. Although many people have done it, it is really silly to call either man a reactionary. Nevertheless, both did think that the modern world had turned away from God and that this resulted in a dangerous warping of our values. Both men thought it a very important part of their work to call mankind back to God and point the way toward the truth about man and what is truly good for him.
Thus John Paul II taught an important lesson when he shouldered the cross of his office all the way to his death. He noted — for example, in Evangelium Vitae — that the modern world, influenced by materialism and hedonism, tended to censor and reject suffering, as if it were nothing but an evil. This is not the Christian view, of course. And one wonders if John Paul II did not intend to teach the world something about suffering by choosing to suffer publicly to the end of his life. If he had retired, his suffering would have become entirely private, and it would not have then been possible for him to show the world by his public example that suffering need not be regarded as wholly fearsome but can be rendered noble through perseverance in doing one’s duty.
Does it follow from this that Benedict is failing to the extent that he has not followed John Paul II’s example? Not at all. He is teaching a different but equally important lesson. Modernity tends to censor and reject not only suffering but death. Modernity would like to overcome death, and if that cannot be done then at least put it off as much as possible and keep it out of sight. We are not supposed to talk or think much about death: it’s morbid. This is not just a modern tendency but, like the desire to reject suffering, a human tendency. Somewhere Saint Thomas More says that there is nobody so old that he does not expect to live at least one more year. You could be 100 years old and still unwilling to face your mortality. After all, you think, I might well live to be 101!
By his resignation, Benedict has taught us an important lesson about facing our own death. By laying down his office, he is admitting to himself that the end is near, that the next important step in his life will be the ending of it. There are no more important earthly deeds to accomplish before death, and therefore nothing coming in-between to distract him from death. Any man might easily have chosen the other path, trying to ignore these realities. Benedict might have told himself: maybe the decline in my strength is only temporary. Maybe I have been working too hard, and if I pull back a bit I will recover my energy and be able to go on who knows how long. Evidently, based on the evidence Benedict had, he had to reject such ideas as mere wishful thinking. And in facing the truth he made a courageous choice that we can all admire and from which we should try to learn.