Papa, oh why are you leaving?

Pope Benedict’s Angelus address on Sunday offered a most remarkable rationale for his impending resignation: ascending the mountain of meditation, prayer. The faltering strength of an octogenarian takes on the forgotten truth of an old Russian proverb: old age is for prayer.

Here, read the excerpt for yourself:

Dear brothers and sisters, I hear this Word of God addressed to me in a special way during this moment of my life. [applause from crowd] Thank you! The Lord is calling me to “scale the mountain,” to dedicate myself still more to prayer and to meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church – on the contrary, if God asks this of me, it is to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have tried to do so hitherto, but in a way that is more adapted to my age and my strength. Let us invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary: may she help us always to follow the Lord Jesus in prayer and in active charity.

Remarkable for a Pope to say such words, that is, since the last — and only! — pope to resign for the sake of greater solitude and prayer was that other faltering octogenarian pope, St. Celestine V, way back in 1295 A.D.

It’s clear from the pope’s own words that his decision to step down reflects his belief that the Church in the 21st century faces immense, complex and increasingly high-paced challenges, both from within and without, which require from Christ’s Vicar a pastoral energy, political savvy and cultural sagacity that he believes he no longer possesses (or at least in regard to ‘pastoral energy’ and to the degree rightly required by the exigencies of a postmodern papacy).

But it’s also clear from the pope’s words Sunday that he believes something else: whoever sits in St. Peter’s Chair, or any seat of authority in the Church, must be a person of deep prayer. True to his chosen papal name, Benedict clearly believes the ‘mystical secret’ to future success of the Church’s mission lies in its contemplative vocation. Concomitantly, he believes that the post-conciliar Church has been beset by the heresy of “activism” — i.e. it has become a Church of planning committees, pastoral initiatives, programs and action plans that has forgotten how to pray like the ancients: before and above all else, crying out to God with longing, ardent, deep, gritty, heartfelt and Spirit-groaning prayer.

For Benedict, the “Augustinian” theologian of grace, this stunted approach to the Church’s mission requires a new confession of the absolute primacy of divine grace – the Church is the work of the Trinity before it is the work of humanity.

By retiring into a life of prayer for the Church, Pope Benedict seems to be offering a prophetic statement about the vocational effectiveness of the priest-pastor: if you wish to bring to the world Christ’s new evangelization you must, in the words of St. John Vianney, be “above all else a man of prayer…a pauper who begs all needful things from God.”

Why? Because it’s not your Church, or your cosmos, but His.

Flectamus genua, “let us kneel.”

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