Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was renouncing the office of pope on Feb. 28. As you read this column the church is in a state of “Sede Vacante,” the empty chair of the Bishop of Rome. People were startled throughout the world over the unexpected announcement by the pope.
Statements and well wishes came in from around the world and from various religious leaders. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Orthodox Church throughout the world, said, “Pope Benedict leaves an indelible mark on the life and history of the Roman Catholic Church, sealed not only by his brief papacy but also by his broad and longstanding contribution as a theologian and hierarch of his church, as well as his universally acknowledged prestige. We Orthodox will always honor him as a friend of our church and a faithful servant of the sacred proposition for the union of all. From the Phanar, we pray that the Lord will manifest his worthy successor as the head of the sister Church of Rome, and that we may also continue with his successor on our common journey toward unity of all unto the glory of God.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the Anglican church, said he was of “heavy heart” after learning of the pope’s resignation. In a statement to the 80-million Anglican communion, he shared that he fully sympathizes with the pope’s decision to resign; he said the pope held his ministry with “great dignity, insight and courage.”
“He has laid before us something of the meaning of the Petrine ministry of building up the people of God to full maturity. In his teaching and writing he has brought a remarkable theological mind to bear on the issues of the day.”
Archbishop Welby prayed that God would bless Pope Benedict in his retirement, as well as those entrusted with the task of choosing his successor.
The Anglican Archbishop of York remarked, “The Christian world will miss a great theologian with great spiritual depth. He was unafraid to proclaim the Gospel and challenge a culture that is so self-referential, managing to lift our eyes to God’s glory.”
Head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Bishop Mark S. Hanson, noted that while the resignation comes as a surprise, it is “one that calls Christians to lift up support and prayers in this momentous time of transition.”
The presiding bishop said, “Pope Benedict XVI has served the Catholic Church during a time of significant challenge. He is a highly respected, traditional and conservative theologian. As the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his assistance with guiding the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was a major contribution for Lutherans and Catholics.”
“Pope Benedict’s positive contributions in emphasizing God’s redemptive love in Jesus Christ, on the centrality of prayer and his focus on charity are gifts that will continue to support God’s people and our common work for the unity of Christians,” said Hanson, adding that in this time of transition and prayer for the Catholic Church “it is also important that we continue dialogue as a significant part of our relationship.”
World Council of Churches general secretary, Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, said, “We have to respect fully the decision of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI to resign. With deep respect I have seen how he has carried the responsibility and burdens of his ministry in his advanced age, in a very demanding time for the church. I express my appreciation for his love and commitment to the Church and to the ecumenical movement.”
“Pope Benedict knows the WCC well,” Tveit said, referring to the time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when as a professor of theology at the University of Tubingen, Germany, he was a member of the WCC Faith and Order Commission. He added, “Let us pray that God bless him in this moment and this phase of his life, and that God will guide and bless the Roman Catholic Church in a very important time of transition.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is coordinator, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.