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Papal move the right decision at right time

Date

Tim Fischer

Benedict's resignation might have been a surprise for most, but the signs were there some time ago that he might take such a step.

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This papal resignation is courageous, correct and remarkable but, I would contend, not surprising, given all the signs that have appeared in the Vatican over recent times.

''I resign the papacy out of the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of my own physical strength, my ignorance, the perverseness of the people - and the longing of the tranquillity of my former life.''

These are the hauntingly eerie words of Pope Celestine V on December 13, 1294, when he resigned the papacy at Naples. They could have fitted well in the magnificent letter Pope Benedict read to the cardinals in flawless Latin on Monday in the Clementine Hall.

In the course of my posting as the first Rome-resident Australian ambassador to the Holy See, there were several straws in the wind I picked up on, so much so that I wrote a chapter in a manuscript for a forthcoming book, on the likelihood of a papal resignation by this Pope

The first real sign that the Pope was contemplating resignation was in a detailed interview he gave to the outstanding German journalist, Peter Seewald in the northern summer of 2010 at beautiful Castel Gandolfo.

It was a shrewd question by Seewald direct to the Pope: ''Is it possible then to imagine a situation in which you would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate?'' The Pope replied in clear-cut terms: ''Yes, if a Pope clearly realises that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, in some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.''

Around the same time the Holy Father not once but twice visited the tomb of Celestine V at l'Aquila to pray and meditate. The first time was soon after the dreadful l'Aquila earthquake, to be followed by another visit on a key anniversary relating to Pope Celestine V. In turn this led to some discussions in diplomatic and curia circles, but to be fair, very low-key speculation as to how much importance should be given to this and to the interview that later emerged in the book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times: by Pope Benedict XVI as shared in a Conversation with Peter Seewald.

There was an additional factor of major import before this. In 2008 this Pope allowed the Father General of the Jesuits, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, to resign because, as Father Kolvenbach stated ''the Society of Jesus has the right to be governed and animated by a Jesuit in full possession of his physical and spiritual talents and not by a companion whose energies continue to diminish because of age''.

Furthermore, there was always the possibility that the Pope would always do the opposite of the lingering departure of his predecessor, Pope John Paul, whose suffering and death he witnessed at such close quarters. In a roundabout way, it is his salute to the legacy of John Paul that he has chosen to do exactly the opposite and resign. As it is often said in Rome, there can only be one John Paul, he was unique in so many ways.

All in all, we have a very conservative Pope providing a modern method of departure, by signalling a departure by way of an instrument that cannot be rejected and is absolutely in accord with canon law. Canon law has always provided for papal resignation and while it is a surprise to many, when you look it at closely it is the right decision at the right time.

My successor ambassador John McCarthy, QC, has correctly described this as momentous; it clearly has upset a number of Italian and Vatican traditionalists. It brings to an end the papacy of the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the quiet German theologian who presided over difficult years for the church but greatly helped deliver on a number of important fronts for broader humanity.

Being the leader of the oldest organisation in the world in modern times is an extraordinary challenge for any one person. I wish Cardinal Pell safe travels, inspired deliberations and ''white smoke'' soon enough.

Tim Fischer was Australian ambassador to the Holy See between 2008 and 2012 and author of the forthcoming book 1000 days in Rome.

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