In what some are calling a display of divine displeasure at the pope’s decision to resign, a bolt of lightening struck the Cross atop the dome of Peter’s Basilica in Rome only hours after the Pope’s shocking announcement. The pope’s decision left Catholics confused and bewildered as to the direction in which the Church is now headed.
“Quo Vadis” is a Latin phrase meaning “Where are you going.” It refers to the encounter between St. Peter (the first pope) and Jesus Christ on the Appian Way. Peter, fleeing from the persecutions and likely crucifixion of the Emperor Nero had a vision of Christ whom he asked "Domine, quo vadis?" Jesus answered him, "Whither I go, thou can not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards" (John 13:36). Peter understood this to mean that Jesus was going back to Rome to be crucified again. Peter, following his own fate, returned to Rome and was crucified at the foot of the Vatican Hills where St Peter's Basilica stands today.
Is Pope Benedict XVI on the same Appian Way today fleeing the wolves? The last pope John Paul II suffered from such physical disabilities and spiritual tortures at the end of his papacy that he could no longer hide them from public view. But he did not abandon the barque of Peter. Instead he allowed his scourged body to be held up as a testament to his faith and trust in God - just as Christ did when he stood before Pilate and the rebel crowd. Even when pressured several times to resign from those both inside and outside the Church, Pope John Paul II did not cave in to the wolves’ demands. Rather, he used their taunts as an opportunity to teach us how “Christ, [in his hour of darkness], did not come down from the cross.” He taught us: “Now is the time to work, heaven is the time to rest.” So where is Benedict going at this late hour? Did he perhaps receive a vision altogether different from that of Peter?
Many in the Church - especially those who previously applauded Pope John Paul II’s fortitude in embracing his papacy - are now, in rather stark reversal, favorably comparing Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication with that of the abdications of Pope Celestine V and Pope Gregory XII. However, contrary to the pundits these were exceptional cases. Celestine V, resigned after having been snatched by force from his hermit’s cell. Gregory XII, was forced to resign in order to resolve the very serious issue of the Great Western Schism. Where is the exception in Benedict XVI’s case? His intellectual faculties of fully intact. His health, according to Holy See Press Office director Fr. Federico Lombardi, is “generally good”. Is there something more we are not being told? Every pontiff experiences a certain human inadequacy in fulfilling the office of the Vicar of Christ. But the Holy Spirit is most assuredly guaranteed to stay with the pope from the time he is elected to the very end of his pontificate. Most likely only the pope will ever know for sure if he has chosen to follow the will of God or the will of man.
The pope’s abdication, while quite permissible from a theological and canonical standpoint, is nonetheless extremely innovative and revolutionary from a historical perspective. It represents a serious break with tradition insofar as the Chair of Peter has now become an office that can be judged by the same criteria by which modernity judges things. Essentially, the papacy now runs the risk of having its image stripped of its sacredness in the eyes of the world.
Despite this continuing trend toward modernity Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to the clergy of the Rome diocese on February 14, wished to assure Catholics that 50 years after Vatican II, “the strength of the real Council has been revealed...and is becoming the real power which is also true reform, true renewal of the Church.” But there are few if any signs of this new springtime. One need only look around a bit to see that very few of his priests and bishops pay him any real homage other than the usual empty lip service betoken wolves in sheep’s clothing. This is especially visible in their almost unanimous disdain for the pope’s Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum promoting the Latin Mass. It is also evident in their refusal to follow the Pope’s many good examples regarding the Novus Ordo such as his abandonment of the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand while standing.