Statement of Bishop Leo O’Reilly on the occasion of the announcement of the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI

12 Feb 2013

Like the rest of the world I was a greatly surprised to learn of the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and had no expectation that it was about to take place. The main reason for the surprise was simply that for several centuries no Pope has retired. However, in another way it is not surprising because it has been known for some time that Pope Benedict’s health was failing and that he was having difficulty walking.

I am deeply impressed by his decision to retire, given that this was such a departure from established tradition. It shows how independent-minded Pope Benedict is and that for him faith comes first, not personal considerations. He is regarded as a staunch traditionalist, but he has the freedom to depart from tradition when conscience demands it. I think it is entirely consistent with his character that he has chosen to retire when he felt no longer able to discharge his essential duties as Pope. It is also a mark of the man that he had the courage to take a step that is almost unprecedented.

Pope Benedict XVI has had a relatively short pontificate – less than 8 years. However, for a man who was 78 when he was elected, he has left a great legacy to the Church.

He wrote several major encyclical letters, all of which focussed on the really important parts of the Christian message, not on contentious or peripheral issues. His first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), goes to the heart of what Christianity is about. His second, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), was another theme central to the Gospel. His encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth), deals with exercise of love in practice, emphasising the importance of truth and justice in all our relationships, but particularly in relation to social justice.

He also wrote the post Synodal Exhortation Sacramentum Veritatis (The Sacrament of Truth) on the Eucharist. Apart from that there were his regular teachings, allocutions, letters and addresses. In addition to his writings and publications as Pope he continued to write as a scholar. His most notable contribution in this regard is his widely acclaimed three volume work, Jesus of Nazareth.

For the point of view of Ireland, perhaps his most important writing of all is his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, which was published on 19 March 2010, in the middle of the worst period of the child abuse scandals. A letter to the Catholics of a single country is almost unprecedented, and this one was written in very plain English and presented in a manner that made it accessible to all. We will always be grateful for his care and support of the Church in Ireland at this time of crisis.

In that context what may come to be regarded as his most important legacy will be his determined efforts to confront the issue of abuse of children in the Church. He made some decisive changes in Canon Law to enable bishops to act more effectively in dealing with those who have abused children. But he also recognised that abuse of children was not a problem confined to or peculiar to some parts of the world, but was an issue which every local Church has to face. He put the safeguarding of children at the top of the agenda for the whole Church.

We thank God for the ministry of Pope Benedict XVI as Holy Father and for his service to the Church as a layperson, priest, bishop, Cardinal and Pope during his 85 years of life so far. We ask God’s blessing on him as he retires and pray that he will find rest and improved health in his retirement.


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