One trope common to many of the news stories and commentary regarding Pope Benedict's announcement of his resignation is the claim that "He never wanted to be pope." While it is true that Pope Benedict's brother, Fr. Georg Ratzinger, and others have confirmed this statement over the years since the Holy Father's election on April 19, 2005, its use in this situation seems to suggest that Pope Benedict resigned, at least in part, because he's never been comfortable in the office.
Perhaps that is true, but I doubt it. Rather, Pope Benedict's lack of desire to become pope was a reflection of the sentiments that led him to proclaim, after his election, that no one was more surprised than he. An intensely private man, more at home in reading and writing books than in engaging in papal politics, Joseph Ratzinger is also remarkably humble for a man who made it to the highest office in a 2,000-year-old institution that represents over a billion members.
That such a man never wanted to be pope is understandable; that he would resign the papacy for that reason is not. In fact, quite the opposite: Pope Benedict's humility flows from his faith, and that same faith made it clear to him that he was chosen by the Holy Spirit to be the Vicar of Christ. In accordance with that choice, he has thrown himself enthusiastically into his pontificate, accomplishing more in just under eight years than many other popes have in twice that long.
It is a mistake to think of Pope Benedict's decision in worldly terms. There is every reason to believe that he believes the fullness of what the Catholic Church teaches—including about the operation of the Holy Spirit in his election. And that is why it is a great disservice to the Holy Father to suggest that his resignation would flow from a lack of desire to be pope.
Pope Benedict's decision to resign could not be an easy one, precisely because he had to wonder if, in doing so, he was flouting the will of the Holy Spirit. To suggest, even with the best of intentions, that it flowed in part from a lack of desire to be pope is to dismiss the spiritual struggle that Pope Benedict must have faced over the past several months while making this decision.
Beyond that, as the College of Cardinals prepares to convene to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, we might consider this question: Should Catholics really want a pope who really wants to be pope, rather than one who, in humility, accepts the decision of the Holy Spirit? We had such men in the Renaissance, and despite the best efforts of certain triumphalist Catholic historians to paint their pontificates in a positive light, the reality was quite different.
Let us hope and pray that the next man elected as the Successor of Peter doesn't want to be pope, either.
(Pope Benedict XVI speaks at the United Nations headquarters April 18, 2008 in New York City. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)