The first thing that struck me, when I read the English text of Pope Benedict XVI’s “Declaratio” on the Vatican Radio website, was this passage:
I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
I thought the Pope was referencing his predecessor’s last years in office, when Pope John Paul II’s Petrine ministry was precisely service “with prayer and suffering.” Referencing, and then finally rejecting, that sainted example, because of the present-day conditions in which the Roman Catholic Church found itself: “so many rapid changes,” “shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.”
I understood these phrases to mean a recognition of the stasis that had characterized Vatican decision-making in the first years of the 21st century, when Pope John Paul II’s ministry of suffering had offered believers everywhere a source of inspiration, but also a cautionary tale of governance.
PS. Amy Davidson of The New Yorker was thinking along the same lines.