It strikes me that the future of the Roman Catholic Church in my lifetime, and perhaps well beyond, may largely be determined by which of his two predecessors Pope Francis takes as his model for the final stage of a papacy. For John Paul II, the increasing frailty and illness of his last years were almost a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inner radical dependence on God. (“Though he slay me, I will yet trust in him.”) For him, the public bearing of affliction was a necessary consequence of the burden he had taken on when he assumed the seat of St. Peter. For Benedict, by contrast, those burdens were to be set aside when honest self-reflection told him he could no longer stand under them.
I am not interested in judging either choice – indeed, only God can do that – but rather merely in pointing out that if Francis follows John Paul’s model he could be Pope for a very long time, and therefore, even if (or especially if) he gradually turns over more and more decisions to his subordinates and allies, could reshape the Church so thoroughly that it is hard to imagine how it could be set back on the path that both John Paul and Benedict set it on. Conversely, if he follows Benedict’s model and resigns – which it has been reported he has occasionally said he would do – then there is at least a chance for the next conclave to engineer a reversal of course.
I do not know whether any Pope has ever made a more significant decision than the one that Francis will make about how his papacy should end. And it is deeply ironic that a decision must be made only because of a dramatic innovation by that great traditionalist, Benedict.