By Nate Tenopir, Editor-in-Chief
When Pope Benedict XVI announced he would abdicate, it created month-long skepticism about the reasons why. Immediately the media created a storyline focused on scandal.
What was broadcast and written hypothesized about further allegations of child molestation and cover ups, or some sort of financial wrongdoings. Those angles were once again presented when the pope finally left office on Feb. 28.
Regardless of the angle the media took on the story, it was almost always negative and focused on the probability something had gone wrong and imagined Benedict was being forced out of office.
However, the real reason Benedict left his post is much simpler, and not nearly as dramatic.
Try to think back eight years ago to when Pope John Paul II passed away. Do you remember the last few years, months and weeks leading up to that?
The pontiff didn’t exactly look the part of the made-for-TV role that the papacy has become. John Paul’s last years were characterized by a frail appearance, a weak voice and a fellow priest reading the pope’s words on his behalf.
Most of the time, John Paul was heavily medicated and not in any condition to make appearances or say Mass, let alone get out of bed. It’s something all of us, not just popes, will go through at the end of a long life. But unlike the rest of us, the pope lives his life in a very public way.
We’ve all been around a grandparent or a relative who reached the end of their days and faded into a shell of themselves.
Popes are no different. What is different is Pope John Paul II marked the first time the world saw a pontiff slowly fade away right before its eyes.
Other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church went through equally painful and uneasy ends to their lives. But for centuries we never saw it. This thought must have crossed the mind of Benedict XVI when he considered his future.
By design, papal authority is meant to last a lifetime.
Believing the right man was chosen to lead millions of followers and to give the faithful a better understanding of the teachings of Christ is locked in our mortality. The responsibility of the office holds no weight if it can be replaced on a regular basis the way we replace our elected officials. Thus, it has to be the responsibility of a lifetime that only ceases when God, not man, decides it’s over.
Yet at the same time, the papacy was created in an age without a media, without TV and without such a worldwide audience. It’s only recently that we’ve seen the entire course of a Pope’s career take place on our TV sets.
Unfortunately, we often attach the most meaning and historical significance to the Pope at moments of transition. Every news outlet – morning shows, evening shows, 24-hour cable networks, magazines, newspapers, etc. – dedicated time to the Vatican when John Paul II was on his deathbed.
The talk of a successor began, and everyone stayed interested until the white smoke rose above St. Peter’s and Benedict donned the white garments for the first time.
Every pope after John Paul II is guaranteed to have the same circus surrounding his passing.
How do you think you’d feel if you knew most people only attached value to your life once it ended and someone was chosen to take your place?
Benedict had to have seen that example and wanted no part of it. It’s not our place to have our wondering eyes captivated by Pope Deathwatch 2013, 2014, 2015 or whenever that day may come.
Everyone deserves to die with dignity. Unfortunately the final years, months, weeks and hours leading up to that fateful day can be nothing short of embarrassing.
Pope John Paul II deserved better than he got when he finally left us in 2005. Benedict’s decision guarantees he’ll enjoy the peace John Paul never did.
It’s an example I hope other popes will adopt in the future. It’s not our place to watch a pope wither and die and treat it as if it’s a party.
A life should be celebrated and valued as its lived, not only when it ends.