Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A red shoe chronicle

Upon reaching the age of 75, Cuernavaca's world-renowned bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo presented his resignation to Pope John Paul II in 1982.   He was frequently asked if he didn't object to having to retire while still physically strong and mentally alert. Indeed after his retirement he traveled and spoke extensively on the lecture circuit.  He would always point out that he had voted in favor of a bishops' mandatory retirement age, and abided by it willingly.  I remember him drawing laughter when he told his congregation about his suggestion to "his brother bishops from around the world" gathered in the Second Vatican Council that the pope should have a mandatory retirement age too.  

Don Sergio presented his suggestion as an amendment to Pope Paul VI 's request to the bishops meeting in the Vatican Council that they approve a change in the tradition of lifetime appointments. Pope Paul VI’s requested that bishops offer their resignation "when faced with the increasing burden of age or some other serious reason. . . "  As to be expected, Paul VI's request was approved and Bishop Mendez Arceo's amendment was rejected. 

Pope Paul VI set retirement age for priests at 70, for bishops at 75 and restricted voting for a new pontiff to cardinals under the age of 80.

The bishops stuck with tradition regarding the pope – no retirement age. He serves for life.

Thirty-nine year-old Joseph Ratzinger, later to be Benedict XVI, certainly heard Bishop Mendez Arceo's outlandish words.  Not yet a bishop, Father Ratzinger participated in the Second Vatican Council as a theological consultant.

I remember Don Sergio -- as Bishop Mendez Arceo is known in Cuernavaca -- pointing out that Paul VI did great damage to the Church by staying on beyond when he could handle running an organization as large and important as the Catholic Church.  Don Sergio did not live to see the last years of John Paul II's papacy, but I'm sure he would have had the same to say.

Last Sunday I met with a close collaborator of Don Sergio's, Father Angel Sanchez, with the hope of gleaning further insight into Don Sergio's suggestion.  No luck.  He told me "you'll probably find some of his insights in the letters he wrote from the Vatican Council meetings."  Indeed Father Angel is releasing those letters with comments that put them in perspective on the 50th anniversary of each letter's dateline. He didn't offer to give me a preview.  However Father Angel did tell me "Paul VI either didn't want to retire or the Roman curia wouldn't allow him to do so.  Had he retired at 75 that would have become the norm for popes, as bishops of Rome.  At that time the curia was strong and the pope was weak.  But now the door has been opened to the idea of retirement.  The next pope won't be required to retire, but he will be thinking about it."

Father Angel went on to tell me that the Vatican Council is also referred to as a Synod of Bishops.  Synod, a word with a Greek root, refers to walking together.  The word council has a Latin root referring to convocation or assembly. Father Angel said that bishops prefer the idea that the government of the Catholic church is of bishops working together with the Pope as the Bishop of Rome being the highest ranking bishop.

With that interpretation popes would be subject to mandatory retirement.  

Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world on February 11th with the announcement of his resignation on less than three weeks notice, effective last Thursday, February 28.  Within that short time a church which has not dealt with such an event for 700 years has agreed on a title for him, Emeritus Pope, found him a place to live and, within an institution in which symbolism plays a important role, has even determined what clothing he will wear, all without infringing on his successor-to-be's role as pontiff. 

The Emeritus Pope will still wear white, but he has given up his red shoes.  Vatican spokesman the Reverend Federico Lombardi says that Benedict XVI will replace the popes' signature red shoes with brown shoes made by Mexican craftspeople in Martin Dueñas' shoe factory in Leon, Guanajuato. They were gifted to him last year when he visited Mexico. 

If Don Sergio's words resonate in Benedict XVI's mind, and he's now wearing shoes from Guanajuato, could we say Mexico has him covered from head to toe?

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