Benedict of the Doubt

When the Pope made his big announcement this week, I was probably one of the few people thinking of car keys.

Not at first, of course. Like a lot of us, my first reaction when Pope Benedict XVI announced he would retire at the end of February was “What? He can DO that?” I guess when a trigger doesn’t get pulled in 600 years, you kind of forget it’s there.

After that? Some sympathy, some jokes, some expressions of good or bad memories of the Pope and what he had or hadn’t done. And of course, some confusion and anger over Benedict’s decision to lay down the Fisherman’s Ring.

“If a Pope is, literally, a father … elected to be a father to the Body of Christ … well, fathers don’t step down,” said one Facebook friend who admitted to being “flabbergasted” by the news.

I can understand the feeling. But I came at it from a different angle.

It’s true that fatherhood isn’t something you can retire from. But it is something you can be forced to lay down. I have at least two close friends who had to become a parent to their fathers because their dads had grown too weak, physically and mentally, to take care of themselves, never mind a family. It was a hard moment for both of them, one born of love and pain, and they weathered it with all the strength they had.

Most of us, I think, haven’t been brought to that point. I hope we never are. But we probably all know someone who has made a smaller decision in deference to age and ability.

Namely, the decision to hang up your car keys for good.

My grandma had to make that decision last year. It wasn’t an easy one. She’s long been used to going where she wants, when she wants: church, the library, the pharmacy, the store. As she got older, she cut out night driving and out-of-town trips, but kept the rest into her 90s.

But when the choice came, it came for a good reason. Her reflexes weren’t what they had been. Small warnings that would have jumped out at her even five years before could be missed now. It wasn’t what she wanted to do – it’s probably not what any of us want to do – but for her safety and that of others, she made the decision.

If I can acknowledge that that’s a good idea for a relatively small responsibility, how much more so for one that could affect the entire world?

“In order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” Benedict declared on Monday, “strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

Those had to be hard words to say. That he could say them at all wins some respect from me.

Were there other motives behind the decision? Probably. When a world leader surrenders power, it’s rarely just for one reason. I’m sure there’ll be speculation for months on the whys and wherefores, maybe even a book or two.

But for me, for now, the stated reason is more than sufficient. However willing the spirit, there comes a time when the body can’t back it up.

At that point, there’s a strength in surrender. In knowing, and acting on the knowledge, while you remain able.

It’s a sign of wisdom.

You could even call it a key decision.