So the Pope gave up and left.
He was leading a sinking ship. The Catholic Church has fallen on harder times than usual. The developed world isn’t very friendly toward the teachings of the church. The sex-abuse scandals have brought terrible reckoning upon the administration of the church, and left it with a black eye in many of the strongholds of catholicism. In addition, modern and post-modern attitudes have turned traditional teaching on morality into the equivalent of hate speech. This 85 year old (relatively young) pontiff couldn’t take it any more. He was a proven traditionalist, and seemed to be trying hard to find a sandy place to stick his ostrich head. So off he goes to be a “simple pilgrim”, in the palatial setting of a papal monastery. Withdrawal, along with a life of relative luxury, seems to be the chosen way out for a man that just couldn’t take it any more.
As a lifelong student of Appalachia, I have some admiration for the catholics. They have done a lot to bring relief to the poor in this region. The Bishops serving the appalachian region have issued two teaching documents summing up their mission here in the mountains. They are sensitive, well-written pieces. “This Land is Home to Me” was written in 1975 and “At Home in the Web of Life” was written in 1995. Both documents chart the attitudes of Appalachia, describe the needs, and put forth ways the church will advance their efforts in order to bring relief to symptoms of poverty in the area. I have great admiration for the pastoral sensitivity of the church in these documents, available for perusal at this link: Click Here.
As a Christian in with an Evangelical bent serving in a formerly Mainline Protestant Denomination (The United Methodist Church), I really don’t see this papal retirement as newsworthy. Protestants have dismissed the place of papal authority and the efficacy of the Roman church for almost 500 years. Evangelicals are still pushing against the liberal influences in our denomination and others that threaten to push the churches we love away from scriptural integrity. All the while, the world continues to relativize, downplay, and outright push against the teachings of Jesus and the work of His followers. In this ever-widening chasm of separation, the influence of the church is waning. And many are glad of it. Yet any church at its best will exhibit strong commitment to the poor and outcast. The world still needs that witness.
Which is what makes the priest sex-abuse thing so ghastly. I knew a priest in Kingsport, Tennessee when I was growing up. I was curious about other faiths and spent some of my teen years calling on churches in the town of Kingsport to explore with their leaders what they believed that made them different from my home Methodist church. The priest at St Dominic’s was very friendly, and drew me into conversations that I enjoyed. He would help me work out things I was struggling with, and always invited me to mass. During Lent there was an evening mass I could attend that didn’t interfere with my regular worship times at my home church. My home church pastor took me the first few times. We always went up for communion and were blessed by the priest since he couldn’t share communion with us (since we weren’t catholic).
During this time things were breaking down in my home life, with my dad’s leaving us for a while, and then later committing suicide. The priest was present at his funeral, and provided strength to me when I called. None of this seems unusual.
A friend from high school, who happened to be catholic, had a bad car wreck one evening on the Yuma Road, and spent the night in his overturned car before he was found. He had a bad head injury, but otherwise recovered in due time. I went by to see him at the hospital, and since it happened to be the day evening mass was going on, I went to his church to pray for him. The next morning the newspaper reported that the church had burned down that evening. I called to express my concern over this turn of events, and due to the heavy load of grief the church was bearing at the time, was unable to talk to the minister. I only stopped by once or twice after that, as I carried on with my life in college, headed toward seminary myself.
Imagine my dismay when just a few years ago I found out that this priest had been accused of sexually molesting a young boy during those years I was in contact with him. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and is serving a sentence. He is no longer a priest, having been “defrocked.” But the loss of trust is insurmountable.
So I can understand a pontiff retiring. But perhaps he needs to consider the Great Commission which calls Christians to go into the world rather than withdraw from it. Since he wants to be a “Simple Pilgrim,” perhaps he should make a tour of all those who have been abused by priests of the church and listen to their pain and agony. It might be a step toward healing.
From Luke 5: 16: “And he withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed.” May the prayers of the followers of Jesus Christ heal the church and the world. And may the Lord raise up new leaders for a corrupt and dying church and world.