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Catholics React To Pope's Rare Retirement


Of course, there are ecclesiastical and political implications that swirl around Pope Benedict's decision to step down. But at the heart of the matter is one man and a very personal decision. Here to talk about that is Father James Martin. He's a Jesuit priest, cultural editor of the Jesuit magazine, America, and regular guest on this program. Father Jim, thanks so much for being with us again.


SIMON: Jim, people have been referring to this routinely as surprising, astonishing, flabbergasting, historic. I'm wondering what it was like for someone like you in the Church?

MARTIN: Well, my first response was, you know, great admiration for the freedom it took to do something like this. And my second response was, boy, he certainly has raised the bar when it comes to giving something up for Lent.


SIMON: This can't be a job you walk away from lightly.

MARTIN: No. It's obviously something that he had given a lot of prayer to. He had talked earlier about whether or not a pope should resign and said, you know, if the pope feels that he cannot do his job, it is up to him to resign, so he's obviously been thinking about it for some time.

SIMON: John Paul, as you know, had often said that if people observed his suffering, if people observed that the pope put up with disability, it would give people all over the globe the kind of source of strength and sustenance.

MARTIN: Well, I think that's true. I think too often we tend to shut away illness and age, and I think it was a very Christian message that this is simply part of life. Jesus suffered, you know; the saints grew old and ill and I found it very moving. But it is interesting that Benedict came to a very different decision.

SIMON: Yeah. We do have to note, of course, that his decision to step down follows ongoing revelations of sex abuse in the Church, a scandal over Vatican documents that were leaked, various other allegations. How do we go about assessing the term of Pope Benedict, and is there any suspicion - suspicion sounds like an unkind word, but just a rational human calculation that maybe there's something more involved in this decision too?

MARTIN: I really don't think so. I mean, lets' put it this way. The scandals and the crimes of sex abuse and all the things that he's had to deal with, you know, in the last few years, I don't think they've been easy to deal with, but I really do think it's a decision based on his physical condition. He's frail and he can no longer fulfill the duties of the job.

And remember, think of an 85-year-old man running an international conglomerate. I think it really is more to do with his health.

SIMON: What, I mean, there hasn't been a precedent for so many centuries. What happens to a pope who's retired?

MARTIN: Well, that's the big question. Technically he's no longer pope so he's not His Holiness. He'll become, I assume, Cardinal Ratzinger again. He'd probably like to spend the rest of his time simply studying and writing. You know, this is basically an elderly professor and what an elderly professor would want to do is read his books and write books as well.

SIMON: Any pope, I guess, lives an emblematic life in the sense that people refer to it, familiarize themselves with it, offer parts of it as instruction. It's kind of early to begin to write this, I expect, but what lessons do you find in pope Benedict's life, conduct and his decision now?

MARTIN: For me his resignation is a great sign of spiritual freedom. Rare is the person today who will relinquish power voluntarily. And it reminds us that no one is indispensable. As my spiritual director likes to say, there's good news and there's better news. The good news is there is a Messiah; the better news is it's not you. So he is not Christ. He knows that better than anybody else.

He's Christ's representative on Earth. But it really reminds people that we're all beloved children of God, but we're all under God in the end.

SIMON: Father James Martin, Jesuit priest and cultural editor of the Jesuit magazine, America. His new eBook coming out, "Together on Retreat: Meeting Jesus in Prayer." Jim, thanks very much for being with us.

MARTIN: My pleasure.


(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.