Popes and presidents belong to pretty exclusive clubs; in 222 years there have only been 44 presidencies, and in 2,000 years only 266 popes. Both offices involve being elected, and the president, or the pope, has been free to step down if he feels that doing so would be best for the country, or the church. Popes and presidents are world leaders and powerful men, wielding great influence. Great popes who changed the Church (and the world) for the better are often elevated into sainthood — revered for their holiness and impact. Many great presidents, such as Washington and Lincoln, are also revered, almost regarded by some as “secular saints,” worthy of emulation.
But there have also been bad popes, and bad presidents too. See Nixon, Jackson, and the infamous antipopes.
I still remember how I felt when I woke up a few years ago, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, and heard the news that Pope Benedict XVI had chosen to resign his office. As someone who grew up in the JP2 Generation, watching a pope step down instead of waiting until God called him home was unheard of. I was so devastated, I cried. Three years later I now realize the decision he made was not easy; it required a lot of wisdom and humility. Feeling unfit for the job, he trusted the Holy Spirit and stepped down to let someone else take the stage.
Which brings up the question, why didn’t Pope John Paul II, suffering from Parkinson’s and so very ill, resign his papacy?
There’s a song from the blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton, called “One Last Time,” which recounts George Washington’s decision to step down after two terms of being president, refusing to establish an American monarchy or dictatorship.
This particular section of the song stood out for me:
[HAMILTON]: Mr. President, they will say you’re weak
[WASHINGTON]: No, they will see we’re strong
[HAMILTON]: Your position is so unique
[WASHINGTON]: So I’ll use it to move them along
[HAMILTON]: Why do you have to say good-bye?
[WASHINGTON]: If I say good-bye, the nation learns to move on; it outlives me when I’m gone
As a millennial I might be biased, but whenever I see videos or photos of St. John Paul in his suffering, I don’t see weakness; I see strength and courage. The Church was his family. Showing his Parkinson’s to the world opened up opportunities to teach compassion towards those who were suffering the way he did; it demonstrated the value of a human life and said that just because one was ill or old didn’t mean one became expendable. I didn’t see weakness in his last days. I saw a love for the Church and for the world that was stronger than Parkinson’s.
In contrast, seeing Benedict walk through the Doors of Mercy with a cane and an aide broke my heart almost as much as he did three years ago. He wasn’t obviously ill, the way Pope John Paul II had been, but he still looked so fragile, it hurt.
A Bible verse that George Washington kept using in his correspondence was Micah 4:4: “They shall all sit under their own vines, under their own fig trees, undisturbed; for the Lord of hosts has spoken.” This verse gets mentioned in “One Last Time,” depicted as Washington’s motivation for stepping down.
I can’t help but think that maybe Benedict wanted the same, although I don’t know for sure. For now, though, I can respect his decision. It takes just as much wisdom to know when to say good-bye as it does to just hold on until the end.