Since no Pope has resigned since 1415, it came as a surprise when news spread Monday morning of Pope Benedict's impending resignation. Politico reports:
Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign on Feb. 28 because he was simply too infirm to carry on - the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.
The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals on Monday morning.
The Pope has been in increasingly and noticeably ill health in the past few months. Benedict's reign has been marred by a series of scandals — in fairness, so have most — including a banking scandal that has rocked the Vatican, though it was not widely covered in the U.S.
U.S. Catholics continue to deal with the widespread fallout of the priest abuse scandal(s), and Benedict's displays of compassion for victims coupled with his seeming inability to see anything wrong with moving abusing priests from diocese to diocese and then covering it up for years and years has been a painful and inexplicable contradiction — and our most public face of the problems within the Catholic hierarchy.
I can't help at a time like this to think of the Catholic priest, Joseph Durick, who was one of the clergy who had begged Martin Luther King to stop his work and let the courts handle desegregation. Reverend Durick, in fact, was one of the men to whom King was speaking in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, when King said:
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
And it would be easy enough to imagine that Reverend Durick heard those words and got angry, and defensive, and that he decided the Rev. King was an arrogant trouble-causer. After all, no one likes to be called out, even when it's in response to their own calling out. And perhaps Durick did get defensive at first.
But he changed his ways. He became an important ally as a bishop here in Nashville for civil rights workers.
Good can win out. People can change. Even giant institutions that seem to exist merely to perpetuate the giant institution can be a force for good. Maybe not as often as we'd like.
But we can hold out hope for it.