Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
Pope Benedict certainly took the spotlight off the Archdiocese of Portland. With his announcement on Feb. 11 that he would be resigning the papacy on Feb. 28, news about the transition of leadership here in Portland was quickly eclipsed by news about the transition of leadership in Rome. Even though it has always been possible for a Pope to resign, it had not happened for nearly 600 years.
With the resignation of our Holy Father, the appointment of Archbishop Sample and the large number of elect preparing to be received into the church on Holy Saturday night, clearly there is a new day ahead for our Catholic family. On the morning after the Pope’s announcement about his resignation, I was driving back from the Portland airport after providing some early morning “taxi service.” When I turned on the radio, I heard a familiar voice. It was the voice of our new archbishop. He was being interviewed from his office in Marquette concerning the resignation of Pope Benedict. He was peppered with all kinds of questions about what the resignation of the Pope would mean for the church. Wisely he signaled to all the listeners that this would indeed be a new day for the church. But it will be the same church, living the same faith, proposing that faith in new and improved ways. Like so many of you, I too welcome the new day. But I do reluctantly bid farewell to this good and gracious Pope who assumed such a heavy burden of office at the age of 78 and carried it off, in my judgment, magnificently.
Whenever people would ask me about the possibility of a papal resignation, I almost always responded that this Pope would not try to hold onto the office if he felt he could no longer do the job. I have met the man many times, sensed his sincerity and commitment to the mission of the church, but also recognized that he never looked upon himself as someone so essential for the effective continuation of the church’s evangelizing mission. He had always been a brilliant scholar who, until his election to the papacy, did his best to evade the spotlight. But when the lights were turned on, he proclaimed the good news and served widely, joyfully and effectively as an ambassador of good will for the Lord and his church. One dramatically significant result of his tenure as Pope is the proliferation of the writings and teachings of Joseph Ratzinger. Once Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict, all his marvelous teachings and beautiful spiritual reflections became “required reading” for friends and foes alike of our Catholic Church.
But, like most people in the public eye, not everything Pope Benedict accomplished has been readily acknowledged. In fact, the very day after his announcement, the media was reporting on some of his “failures.” They made me think about something I had heard concerning Thomas Edison. He reportedly failed countless times in his attempt to discover electricity, but he succeeded only once. That one-time definitive discovery still makes a lot of difference for us when the days are dark and the nights are long. If there were “failures” in the ministry of Pope Benedict XVI, they were far and few between, and they were greatly overshadowed by all his successes as a man of prayer, a teacher of the faith, a servant of the poor, a convener of all who embraced the gospel values of respect for human life, justice and peace.
Once the Pope had announced his resignation, I was asked to issue a statement. It was not presented clearly in the public media, although it could be found on the archdiocesan website, which I would encourage more of you to check with greater regularity. It is very easy to access.
Now that I’ve had a little more time to ponder all that has happened in recent days, allow me to expand a little bit upon that statement. Certainly the Pope’s announcement on February 11th was totally unexpected. Our Holy Father has always understood that his call was to be indeed “the servant of the servants of God,” one of the ancient titles ascribed to the Supreme Pontiff. He clearly has seen all ministry as a service to the church and the world and he regularly reminded us bishops that such was our role. Although it is our responsibility to govern God’s people, we must do so, as Jesus did, like loving servants. He himself chose the name Benedict once elected. Benedict means “blessed.” And truly, countless people have been blessed in so many ways through his service as a priest in Germany, a bishop in Munich and Rome and, most especially, through his diligent, wise and compassionate service as Supreme Pastor of our Catholic Church.
How does a man like Pope Benedict make such a decision? I have no doubt that he spent a lot of time in prayer, placing himself in the hands of the Lord, unconcerned about the personal consequences which result from a decision such as this one. Pope Benedict is a thoughtful and gentle soul, blessed with wisdom beyond most of his peers and a true love of the church, in spite of her many warts and failings. He would do what would serve the church best, with little concern about himself.
The job description of the Pope has expanded dramatically over the past century. Certainly Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, raised the bar significantly with his travels all around the world, the many gatherings he hosted in Rome, openness to ecumenical and interfaith relations and dialogues, outreach to young people, a readiness to use the modern tools of communication for touching base more effectively with one and all everywhere. All of this takes time, energy and availability. I am nearly ten years younger than the Pope and I confess that I find the demands of my own office at times rather exhausting. I cannot even imagine what it must be like for him when so many people want a piece of his time, his wisdom, his presence. God bless this good man for making it very clear to all those who look to church leadership as a matter of power, that their understanding is seriously inadequate when they exclude the outreach and concern which necessarily accompany this call to service, which is primary.
At the end of my statement I assured the Holy Father that we Catholics here in western Oregon were most appreciative of the wonderful way in which he served us in our many spiritual, relational and material needs. I promised him that we would pray for him as he steps aside for his successor. I also wanted him to know that our prayers will be with his coworkers and the Cardinals as they assume responsibility for serving the needs of the church during this time of transition.
As the days of his papacy draw to a close, Pope Benedict reminds us all that, even in retirement, he will still continue the primary ministry which he assumed when he became a bishop, namely, to pray for his people. I was grateful for that reminder as I myself prepare to leave the demands of my own responsibilities. I shall join the Holy Father in being vigilant and consistent in my prayers for all of you and for the church the whole world over. Yes, Viva il Papa! Long live the Pope!