Many around the world are still coming to grips with Pope Benedict XVI’s bombshell announcement on Monday that he plans to abdicate, effective Feb. 28. But the 85-year-old pope’s decision to become the first pontiff in almost 600 years to resign should not have been that startling. Indeed, the man many viewed as the “caretaker pope” has telegraphed his actions for years — in speeches, book interviews and even in a visit to Latin America.
In the book Light of the World Benedict indicated that resigning is the only honorable thing to do if a pope is unable to fulfill his responsibilities.
“If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign,” he wrote.
Just last year, Benedict’s trip to Mexico and Cuba was affected greatly by health considerations. Schedulers passed up on visiting Mexico City because of the altitude, choosing instead to begin the tour in Leon. He brought along his cane — the first time he was seen with it in public — and his schedule was filled with many periods of rest.
His visit to Cuba was also light on public appearances, compared to his predecessor John Paul II’s busy agenda when he visited there in 1998. Many hoped Benedict’s visit would usher in a “springtime of faith,” as Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski put it. It’s unclear whether the trip had a lasting positive impact, although some would point out that Raúl Castro abolished the dreaded exit permits — they were required of all Cubans in order to leave the island — within a year of Benedict’s visit.
What’s clear now is that Benedict’s decision to resign presents an historic opportunity for the Catholic Church to cast a wide net when the princes of the church gather to select his successor.
As it has for centuries, Europe is favored to produce the next pope. But there are strong candidates from Africa and Latin America who would serve ably if given the nod. They hail from Nigeria and Ghana to Honduras, Argentina and Brazil.
The two most mentioned African cardinals, either of which could become the first black pope, are:
• Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace;
• Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, Benedict’s successor as Cardinal Bishop of Velletri-Segni.
Latin American cardinals include:
• Joao Braz de Aviz of Brazil, head of the Vatican department of religious congregations;
• Odilo Scherer of Brazil, archbishop of the large diocese of Sao Paulo;
• Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, head of the Vatican department of Eastern Churches;
• Oscar Maradiaga from Honduras, archbishop of Tegucigalpa;
• Norberto Rivera Carrera, primate archbishop of Mexico.
These papabili deserve strong consideration, especially because 42 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics are in Latin America and about 15 percent in Africa. Europe, by contrast, accounts for about a third of the world’s Catholics.
In choosing to step aside as his health deteriorated, Benedict walked a path that had not been followed in 600 years. Maybe it’s also time for the church to step out of its comfort zone. Catholics will be watching closely next month to see whether the white smoke signaling the election of a new pope is carried aloft by the winds of change.