Before we proceed, a reader advisory: Those of you looking for a column critical of the pope or his church should go elsewhere. My mother was Catholic, and the church was a great solace to her all her life.
Goodness knows, both church and pope have had their problems in recent years but, out of respect for Mum, my intention today is to send good wishes to the Holy Father on a decision sensibly made. However, out of respect for Dad, who was a Protestant, I will note that the idea of an Old Popes Home is fairly hilarious.
But make no mistake: Pope Benedict is doing the right thing in becoming the first pope to retire in nearly 600 years. There comes a time when you just have to put the old mitre down and lift the fancy slippers up.
In the job description of pope, it clearly states that the pontiff must speak up for eternal truths — and the idea that 85 is the new 75 is not one of them. Anyone who says different should go to confession and be made to say three Hail Marys.
I appreciate the pope’s leadership in promoting timely retirement. One day I’ll retire, too, but for the moment my mind and body are still up to the task of amusing those who like to be amused and irritating those who deserve to be irritated. I am no pontiff but I do pontificate a lot, so perhaps I can offer a few timely observations.
Pope Benedict has announced that he will leave at 8 p.m. Feb. 28 — an unusually precise time. See, this is why I’m not pope: I would have stayed around until 10 p.m., so at least I could be sure of getting a good dinner out of it before I left.
According to published reports, Pope Benedict will live in Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat, after he resigns, and later move to a monastery inside the Vatican gardens. It avoids some elementary mistakes that regular people make after retiring.
The pope has managed to avoid one of the biggest pitfalls, which is retirement in Florida. Nothing against Florida, but it can be as hot as Hades in summer. While this may present an interesting theological reminder, the sticky weather comes with the temptation to wear shorts, always to be avoided by senior church leaders, active or retired.
But a greater danger lurks in Florida — and I am not talking about the crowds of seniors filling the Winn-Dixie parking lot and leaving no space for a Popemobile. No, it’s the notorious casserole ladies. These are ladies of a certain age, now single, who still like the company of men and wish to tempt new male arrivals into relationships with the aid of casseroles. Florida is no country for old popes.
As regards the aforementioned Old Popes Home, a monastery in Rome wouldn’t be such a bad thing, unless the Vatican accountants get to thinking about how to cut costs by adding more guests. This might happen naturally with other popes following Benedict’s example and taking early retirement. Then several popes could get together to play checkers and complain about modern liturgical music.
But more likely, the bean counters would suggest adding some retired senior leaders from other faiths — a Coptic pope here, a grand mufti there, perhaps an archbishop of Canterbury or a televangelist. It would be very ecumenical, but it wouldn’t be the same. At that stage, Benedict would be forgiven if he took his chances with the casserole ladies.
My concern is that like any retiree, the pope might fall into unproductive elderly habits — such as playing golf, circulating reactionary emails about politicians and watching sports endlessly on TV. The pope needs to be sure to keep up his exercise and not become a pew potato. He would be well advised to take one of his encyclicals and ride it around the park every now and then.
I sincerely hope Benedict has a quiet, peaceful and holy retirement, free at last from his grave responsibilities and spared the rank scribblings of certain cartoonists — you know who you are — who have made him appear like a manic raccoon about to descend on the bins.
Love him or hate him, he has earned his rest and our respect.
Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.