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Was the Pope Really Considering Resignation?

( - When the last will and testament of Pope John Paul II (bio - news) was made public, many news stories-- including one that appeared on CWN-- led with the report that the late Pontiff had considered resignation. Had he really?

Nowhere in his spiritual testament does John Paul II mention the possibility that he could step down from the papacy. The notion that he considered resignation is based on one ambiguous passage-- in which the late Pontiff might have been discussing resignation, but then again he might have been discussing the approach of death. The wording of the papal document allows for either interpretation.

Here is the much-discussed passage, written during the Lenten Retreat at the Vatican in 2000:

1. When, on October 16, 1978 the conclave of cardinals chose John Paul II, the primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski told me: "The duty of the new Pope will be to introduce the Church into the third millennium." I don't know if I am repeating this sentence exactly, but at least this was the sense of what I heard at the time. This was said by the man who entered history as the primate of the millennium. A great primate. I was a witness to his mission, to his total entrustment. To his battles. To his victory. "Victory, when it comes, will be a victory through Mary"--The primate of the millennium used to repeat these words of his predecessor, Cardinal August Hlond.
In this way I was prepared in some manner for the duty that presented itself to me on October 16, 1978. As I write these words, the Jubilee Year 2000 is already a reality. The night of December 24, 1999 the symbolic Door of the Great Jubilee in the basilica of St. Peter's was opened, then that of St. John Lateran, then St. Mary Major--on New Year's, and on January 19 the door of the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls. This last event, given its ecumenical character, has remained impressed in my memory in a special way.

2. As the Jubilee Year progressed, day by day the 20th century closes behind us and the 21st century opens. According to the plans of Divine Providence I was allowed to live in the difficult century that is retreating into the past, and now, in the year in which my life reaches 80 years (octogesima adveniens), it is time to ask oneself if it is not the time to repeat with the biblical Simeon, Nunc Dimittis.

On May 13, 1981, the day of the attack on the Pope during the general audience in St. Peter's Square, Divine Providence saved me in a miraculous way from death. The One Who is the only Lord of life and death Himself prolonged my life, in a certain way He gave it to me again. From that moment it belonged to Him even more. I hope He will help me to recognize up to what point I must continue this service to which I was called on October 16, 1978. I ask him to call me back when He Himself wishes. "In life and in death we belong to the Lord ... we are the Lord's." (cf. Rm 14,8). I also hope that, as long as I am called to fulfill the Petrine service in the Church, the Mercy of God will give me the necessary strength for this service.

Pope John Paul II frequently mentioned the influence that Cardinal Wyszynski had on his life and his thought, and here he again pays tribute to former colleague in the Polish hierarchy. The words of his mentor had an obvious effect on his pontificate: he devoted enormous attention to the preparation for the Great Jubilee, obviously considering that event the most important focus of his ministry. Now, with the celebration of the Jubilee well underway, the Pope allows himself to wonder whether he has completed his primary mission.

But does that mean he considered resignation? Or did he think that, with his main work as Pontiff completed, he could now expect God to call him home-- and even pray for that release? Again, the text allows either interpretation.

Throughout his spiritual testament Pope John Paul writes about his preparation for death. The reference to the Nunc Dimittis should surely be read in this context. Approaching the age of 80, with his health already slipping badly, John Paul was making himself ready to accept death.

The last paragraph in the passage above points in a different direction, however. The Pope prays that God will "help me to recognize up to what point I must continue this service…" If he was determined to continue his papal ministry until death why would he need to "recognize" the moment of death? Here it does seem possible that John Paul was wondering whether the time would come when he no longer had "the necessary strength" to serve as Pope.

The March 2000 entry was the Pope's final addition to his spiritual testament. He never added any further reflections on these thoughts, and the meaning of his words remains elusive. But in several public statements made after the Jubilee year, John Paul II left no doubt that he had reached a clear decision: He was determined to serve as Roman Pontiff for as long as he lived.

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