(MCT) — ROME — Cardinal Francis George hopes to become the first Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago to live to retire. But he didn’t expect the Holy Father to take that same approach.
George watched from the rooftop of the Pontifical North American College in Rome on Thursday as the white helicopter carrying then-Pope Benedict XVI circled St. Peter’s Square and flew out of sight.
In retirement, “he may be a spiritual father, but not somebody who’s a pastor who governs,” George explained hours after he shared one last private moment with the pope and minutes before Benedict’s departure. “He’s given that up because he feels he really can’t do the function as he ought to. That’s a modern note in our perception of the papacy.”
Suddenly, a global church where 1.3 billion faithful love their Holy Father finds itself without one and facing a paradigm shift. Could Benedict’s retirement change how Catholics relate to the pope? Could it and should it change how the cardinals elect his successor?
“You’re always a father. That’s a relationship that’s permanent,” George said. “And now you’ve got function coming in ...That’s different.”
“Is there a sense of impermanence that changes the relationship?” he added. “That could happen. It doesn’t have to happen. ... It adds a certain note to the whole thing.”
It didn’t take George until 8 p.m. Rome time, when Benedict officially retired, to lament the pope’s departure and to wonder how his precedent would shape the future of the Catholic Church worldwide. Cardinals gathered at the Apostolic Palace on Thursday morning to bid farewell to Benedict face to face.
George joined about 70 others on Wednesday in St. Peter’s Square for the pope’s last audience. George compared the solemn ceremony to a wake marking the death of an office, where Benedict also got to sum up his own legacy.
“I feel a bit saddened,” George said. “It’s a departure like if he were moving away. There’s a sadness in that. There’s also a shared sense that this will strengthen the mission of the church at this time.”
Benedict’s resignation underscores the idea that the Petrine ministry or papal office, belongs to the church, not to the man who holds the title, George said.
The same philosophy underlies term limits for pastors in the Chicago Archdiocese and the requirement that all bishops must submit letters of resignation when they turn 75. George became the first Chicago archbishop to hand in his letter last year.
“When you change a pastor now, because we have terms, that disrupts a fatherly relationship very often—and people don’t expect that,” George said. “They expect to have the same pastor the rest of their lives or at least the rest of his. (A term limit) does change the relationship to the pastor. They figure ‘He’s going to go, and I’m still going to be here.’ That makes some difference in how they approach their priest.”
Roman clergy also must retire at a certain age. Cardinals who turned 80 before Thursday can’t vote for the next pope in the conclave. Benedict concluded that retirement or resignation also could be appropriate for the pope, otherwise known as the bishop of Rome.
“The office is more important than the office-holder,” George said. “In a sense, he’s highlighted the importance of the office by the reason he gave for resigning the office — for the good of the church. The church is not complete without someone in that role. But who that is has been variously interpreted.”
The ability to resign is also a prospect for the next pope and the men who select him to keep in mind, George said.
“The resignation has set a different tone,” he said, referring to the process of selecting a successor. “It’s historic, and in a sense it liberates the pope a little bit — whoever is chosen next — to know there’s an honorable way out.”
The Rev. Donald Senior, president of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, said the pope’s historic move might even liberate the cardinals to pick a younger man who might not want to accept such a demanding modern-day role for the rest of his life. The father analogy can be taken too far, Senior said.
“It actually has opened a path for future popes to think about,” he said. “You hold it with a non-possessive hand. I think people are coming to see that. You can’t resign being a father. You can resign an office. That’s what happened here.”
But Senior said it’s a lesson for all of the church’s leadership to heed.
“It reminds them that they’re entrusted with an office,” Senior said. “It’s not your personal privilege or personal possession. You’re holding something that belongs to the church. That’s where your accountability is. You don’t possess it. I think that’s very important for authority in any setting.”
Call it Benedict’s last teaching as pope, one of the many teachings for which George expressed gratitude in a letter to Benedict before coming to Rome. On Thursday, after Benedict’s farewell address, he greeted each cardinal personally. George seized that opportunity to thank him for his friendship.
“He’s a very friendly man in a reserved way,” George said. “You always felt that. I always felt that when I was with him, and I wanted to thank him.”
“I had already thanked him for those other qualities that everybody knows. This is more personal,” he continued. “This is the last personal encounter I’ll probably have with him. I wanted to let him know that I was grateful in his position I could see him as a friend.”