There Ought to Be a Rite…

Pope Benedict XVI made history today by being the first pope in modern times to resign, and the first pope ever to resign because of old age / frailty.

It seems to me there ought to be some way to mark this passage. There isn’t any rite to retire Cardinals from voting in papal elections, and when bishops retire…? We don’t have a rite for that either, do we? Just a nice send-off with a Mass and a party seems to do the trick. In fact, I am forced to reflect that we’re really not as adept at saying goodbye as we are at commissioning new beginnings. I mean, we’re good at death and all that, just not at saying goodbye while the person is still living.

Still, the pope could set a trend for celebrating such transitions that might become a model for others. What do you think?

If it were up to me, I’d have prayers of thanksgiving and penitence, Ecclesiastes 3, perhaps “consider the lilies of the field” or a New Testament reading concerning the kingdom… We’d have to sing of course. Maybe a ritual gesture of some sort. Turning in the keys to the papal apartment? Giving up the Pontifex twitter account?

There are so many novel questions! What should the role of a retired pope be at the ceremony of the installation of a new pope? These are all uncharted territories. So, make your suggestions now, and perhaps some of the high-ranking officials who read Pray Tell (!) will take notice, and you too could change history.


  1. I’ve been told stories, by those who would know, of retired bishops and cardinals –not to mention retired priests– who, once they were no longer in positions to be able to help those who sought them out, were virtually abandoned. Their “utility” was over. It is too easy to give the impression, even inadvertantly, that instead of being persons to be loved, people are treated as “things” to be used. Functionaries. Objects of convenience. The dignity of human personhood being all but denied. This happens in secular society as well as the church– people are “used”, walked all over, taken advantage of, especially those unable to fight/speak up for themselves. The Church can witness to something greater, it can reaffirm our basic belief, that all human beings are created in the image of God.
    Let’s not let good Pope Benedict fade into the background. Like the crowds who accompanied Paul to his boat knowing they would never see his face again, let the Church accompany Benedict, with gratitude, to a retirement richly deserved. And continue to remember him on significant days in his life. It just might be a wonderful reminder to church and society of the sacredness and dignity of every human person– even when they can’t be ‘used’ anymore.

  2. Rita, I’ve wondered this same thing all day. Will there be a farewell Mass? (Even parochial vicars get farewell Masses.) How do we do this?

    I doubt that Ezio Mauro meant it in exactly this way when he wrote today for La Repubblica that this is “an eruption of modernity inside the Church.” But in an important sense it is. It is perhaps the final flowering of the modernized papacy that began to bloom under JPII, a universal pastor rather than a medieval monarch. Pastors leave. It’s a part of life. Our universal pastor now departs. How shall we mark the event? It would be a pity if the question were not tended to seriously.

  3. Steve, you are right, and John too. This is a serious question, and it bears on a lot of important issues about human dignity. In my own parish the (much beloved) pastor recently retired because of health issues, and his parting letter began, “I don’t know how to say goodbye.”

    I tagged this post as “humor” because of the quip about the twitter account — it is otherwise a topic of some significance to who we are.

  4. With all respect for Pope Benedict as he takes this weighty step: how do you address a living pope who has resigned? We still refer to “Pope Paul VI”, but we don’t usually say, “Pope St Gregory the Great, pray for us.”

    Would you address Pope Benedict, after he steps down, as “your holiness”?

    Does he simply become a cardinal again?

    The cardinal dean said, in 2005: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum;
    habemus Papam: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Josephum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Ratzinger qui sibi nomen imposuit Benedictum XVI.” Does the name Benedict XVI, which he chose for himself, continue beyond his papacy?

    Or is he once again Cardinal Ratzinger?

    Many prayers for Pope Benedict, in any event, and for the Church as she chooses his successor.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #4:
      Good points, Jonathan – plus 1

      Some rumors are saying that he will live as a hermit within the Vatican – cloistered so that there is no communication?

      Wonder, too, given the live photos, etc. if his health is not degenerating rapidly and ……

      A brave decision that is filled with grace (some of the Romantic poets used to say that sainthood was *grace under pressure*)

  5. He is an archbishop (the bishop of Rome is a metropolitan archbishop), and remains one. What precedent there is indicates that elevation to the papacy takes one out of the Sacred College, so he would have to be renamed to the College. Until such time, he would be Abp Joseph Ratzinger, perhaps with Benedict inserted as might be the case with professed religious (elevation to the papacy is not a sacrament that imparts permanent ontological character, but a sacramental).

    Unless new precedents are created, which may well be.

    I actually like the idea of a non-ritualized farewell for abdication (or, more technically, renunciation). The ritual, such as it was, occurred today. The American cultural memory is stirred by Washington’s surrender of his commission at the end of the War of Independence, one of the great acts of renunciation of power in the Modern era. I think Benedict’s example will be different: it is modeled on St Benedict’s retreat, so we should be looking to the great monastic traditions for models.

  6. Part of me feels like there could be little nobler than a Mass with the parish school children singing and then a sheet cake in the hall. Maybe that’s not a good fit for St. Peter’s? I’m a bit at pains otherwise to imagine what a ritual would look like. The challenge lies in how we conceive of it. Is it an ending that has a sort of funereal quality? Prayers of penitence and thanksgiving seem right. The lillies of the field seems a bit too…abdicatory. Something more like a commissioning, perhaps. Karl’s point that he remains a bishop reminds us that his ministry continues, even if not publicly. Papacy ends, priesthood and the pastoral care of souls does not.

  7. The College of Cardinals is supposed to advise the pope. But I am guessing that Pope Benedict would be reluctant to advise his successor, even as a member of the college; surely that would feel like mortmain in the Vatican.

    So perhaps, as Bill and Karl have suggested, he will retire to a life with very little outside communication, even to his former colleagues.

  8. Maybe it will be like what happens with retired presidents – they keep their hands in a bit politically but also turn to personal projects and charity stuff.

    When I think of his time as pope, I think of his negative interactions with Islam, Judaism, the Protestants, his linking of the badness of sex abuse with women’s ordination, the new missal, his anti-LGBT emphasis … I won’t be missing him.

  9. The culture of the mental health system here in Ohio is, of course, very different from Catholic Church culture. We don’t have anything like the cult of personal leaders where various anniversaries of bishops and pastors are celebrated. Even people who have served for decades as leaders of mental health centers are not given that type of reverance or those types of celebrations.

    However in my personal experience, “retirement” rites have been done very well in the mental health system. My first “retirement” was from a large mental health center to take a position at a mental health board. That agency had a strong “work hard, play hard” culture. Parties including going away parties were a very important part of that culture. I can still remember the going away cake that was served; it was the most delicious and beautiful cake that I can remember. I was also given the prized “glass paper weight”: award. These are all original art works from a local artist. They were only given to departing board members and staff members as a sign of unusually strong contributions to the agency. It still sits on my desk at home.

    Whenever I retired from the mental health board, there was the usual retirement party but the Board made the unusual step of establishing in my honor an award to be given at the annual Board dinner for achievement by a person with mental illness. Although it was not in my job description, I had become the chief consumer advocate on the Board staff, so it was the Board’s way of assuring everyone that nothing would change. This award has become the highlight of the annual board dinner so it is nice each year to go back to a celebration of mentally ill consumers in a supportive environment that I had spent a couple of decades creating.

    As with many people who have spent decades helping to shape a system or organization, I limit myself to this once annual elder statesman role. When you have been the consummate insider for that long, it is really unfair to the people who still have those responsibilities or were once junior staff to second guess them. Showing up on a few ceremonial occassions to support the new leadership becomes your role.

  10. I am moved by the Pope’s honesty and humility. We should take him at his word. He intends, I believe, to disappear from public view lest there be any credence given whatsoever as to there being two popes. As someone said above, the ritual of departure took place today at the consistory. Perhaps when it should become routine for the Bishop of Rome to resign at an age certain like his brother bishops, some other kind of ritual might be considered. I am praying that divine intervention will move the electors to choose someone like cardinal Tagle of Manilla so that the church can embrace the 21st century.

  11. Our parish had a special Mass when Pope John Paul II died and it only seemed natural to do so. I will be consulting with my staff today to see what our parish should do to honor Pope Benedict as he steps down. We may have a special Mass at Midday on Thursday the 28th to do so. Not sure yet. But I heard that the Wednesday Audience the day before will actually be held, so I suspect all the cardinals will be there and St. Peter’s Square will be filled to capacity. I suspect there will be a Mass in St. Peter’s on Thursday morning (may be EF?)

  12. Whatever the difficulties experienced in the last eight years (and there have been many) Benedict has made a courageous and correct decision in retiring, and we should respect him for it.
    How to say goodbye?
    Maybe each parish in dioceses across the world should celebrate a Eucharist of thanksgiving for our Church, still surviving in spite of human frailty in difficult times. Whoever takes up the task of being Bishop of Rome, the See of Peter deserves our prayer and support as true exercise of collegiality would relieve much of the strain on his successor

  13. Wonder if the suggested goodbyes are more for us than for Benedict. Appears he wants to journey on in silence – suggest we support that.
    OTOH – agree with Rita’s initial post that the church does need to liturgically celebrate folks when they leave a ministerial office? Guess the difficulty is in the details. Do we focus more on the communal journey, blessing, thanksgiving and less on the specific individuals?

  14. I imagine it will be a Mass of Thanksgiving, perhaps with some gathering or meal afterward for congratulatory speeches. It does seem there should be a ritualized way to mark the occasion, but that would be a liturgical innovation–something frowned upon in this day and age.

  15. I’ve noticed that this discussion is taking place in regard to clergy alone (but not deacons): what of the school teacher who has served 3 generations of students in the same school (or “Mom” as I called her) … or the parish musician/liturgist, or accountant, etc. Why not ritualize and celebrate all the diverse ways that the witness of service is given to the church?

  16. I think it would be good if the church had a whole day of prayer and/or a Mass on Feb 28th when his resignation takes effect.
    It would be nice and powerful too if the social media went silent for once on that day.

  17. John Swencki : I’ve been told stories, by those who would know, of retired bishops and cardinals –not to mention retired priests– who, once they were no longer in positions to be able to help those who sought them out, were virtually abandoned. Their “utility” was over.

    John S. — This is the second time I’ve seen this same thought recounted today. How sad! It makes me feel sorry for the bishops.

  18. Thanks for this post Rita; you are at once thoughtful and humorous. This seems a good prescription for good living, no?

    There should be rites, I believe – absolutely. I have not thought too much about it until now. Thanks for bringing it up, along with the interesting thread that I find here.

  19. Did you see Pope Benedict’s Ash Wednesday Mass? The magnificent ovation he received was pure grace and gracious. To see the crowds, bishops, priests and servers applauding their Shepherd was absolutely beautiful. The closeups of the Pope’s face brought us into his soul. And when the bishops all removed their mitres, I lost it.
    Actually, if no other ‘tribute’ or ‘thanks’ is given, that’d be ok with me– he got the best today. Today was truly Eucharist– thanksgiving– for a man who assumed a burden he certainly did not seek and fulfilled it to the best of his ability. The church shone today.
    (After witnessing this event, the Cardinal present who will be elected next pope –and all those following him– just might decide he, too, would like to live to receive such a tribute and start a trend of popes retiring!)

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