Since the announcement last week by Pope Benedict XVI that he would be abdicating the Chair of St. Peter and that a new Bishop of Rome would be elected, a debate began to swirl immediately within some Catholic circles about what Pope Benedict should be called. This debate has, for the most part, been one that is cordial and genuine. After all, the question being posed is a legitimate one, since a Pope has not left office alive in six centuries. Some who were disturbed or shocked at the recent news think that the Holy Father will just go back to being Cardinal Ratzinger.
People who are concerned about the situation need to, as is sometimes said, “get a grip,” because God is not only in control of the Church and in control of this situation, but for people to make statements that some otherwise-fine Catholic commentators have made shows that many are being incredibly selfish in their outlook on the Holy Father and his suitability to carry on in the Petrine ministry. No one can know that as well as Benedict himself, and so we must leave the question between he and God, before whom the Pope has said he has “repeatedly examined my conscience.”
The question of how to address the Pope once he ceases to be Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff is a legitimate one because people will want to give the Holy Father the respect of his office in the appropriate way for the remainder of his time on this earth. Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois has weighed in with his opinion. While not definitive, His Excellency’s words ring with a great deal of sense and good reflection, perhaps because he himself is a canon lawyer and knows Church law very well. In comments on a canon law listserv that have been republished by Joan Frawley Desmond in the National Catholic Register, Bishop Poprocki reminds people that the term “Pope” (Papa) is a popular term for the person who holds the Petrine Office, it is a term of endearment which recognizes that this individual is the spiritual father to an untold multitude of souls. The word “Pope” does not appear in canon law, but “Roman Pontiff” is used to describe the Bishop of Rome and supreme pastor of the universal Church. “I don’t think people will have a hard time wrapping their minds around having a Pope who is no longer the Roman Pontiff, Bishop of Rome, etc. Certainly, in direct address, one would never address him as anything but, ‘Your Holiness,’” Paprocki said.
When a bishop, priest, or deacon actually retires, they may not have a regular assignment or responsibilities as an ordinary minister, but they do not cease being a bishop, priest, or deacon. Unless the Church removes their faculties (and even then, they continue to be what they are, merely without the faculties to exercise public ministry), deacons may continue to assist at Masses, proclaim the gospel, preach when called upon, and minister in their communities. Priests who are retired may continue to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, confer sacraments, and assist wherever they are needed as grace and ability allows them. Bishops who retire usually continue to confirm people in the Church, continue to be called “Your Excellency,” or in the case of a Cardinal, “Your Eminence” and usually continue to wear their ring of office (although Pope Benedict’s “fisherman’s ring” will be destroyed) which contains their personal episcopal arms.
Based on these traditional standards of the Church, it is safe to assume that unless he should wish otherwise, Pope Benedict XVI may continue to be called by his papal name (he is and will be the 16th pope with the name “Benedict,” something that will remain a historical reality) and addressed as “Your Holiness.” He simply won’t be the Supreme Pontiff, that title and those official titles associated with it can only go to his successor after February 28th, along with the authority over the Church that goes with them. Benedict will be the Bishop Emeritus of Rome.