Benedict’s Personal Vocation

For the last several weeks I’ve been teaching an online course about the role of the Catholic laity. We’d just gotten to the subject of personal vocation when the startling news came through: Benedict XVI was stepping down as pope.

Posting a question that Monday morning to get my students’ discussion rolling for the week, I began by remarking that Benedict’s action was “the most striking example of personal vocation that I’ve seen in a long time.”

My students, bless them, were quick to pick up on that. Calling the papal decision “a wonderful example of personal discernment,” the very first of them to respond said this:

“First, personal vocation is just that, personal. Not every man who is pope will retire as Benedict XVI just did. It is part of God’s plan for this man, at this time, in this case. Second, it is discovered over time, in prayer and many times through the circumstances of life. The Pope says he has been noticing his strength decrease over the past few months and has been praying about this and come to the conclusion that he must retire.”

B16 10 1That rates an A+ in my book. Too bad that can’t be said of all the commentaries on the papal resignation that I’ve seen and heard.

Some people contrasted Benedict’s decision, taken in light of failing strength, with Blessed John Paul II’s decision to soldier on to the end despite the inroads of Parkinson’s disease. Then they cited the difference to the disadvantage of either one man or the other: John Paul should have done as Benedict is doing or, alternatively, Benedict should have died in office, as John Paul chose to do and as popes generally have done.

But this misses the point that, as my student astutely put it, “personal vocation is just that, personal.” Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul faced circumstances that were alike in some ways but also unalike in others. These were two different men who heard God calling them to act in two quite different ways. Note that both before and after becoming pope, John Paul II was the greatest exponent of the idea of personal vocation that we’ve seen yet. Clearly, he applied the idea in his own case, right up to the end.

What will Benedict XVI be remembered for in the long run? The tremendous emphasis he has placed on new evangelization, no doubt,  his courageous stands against things like women’s ordination and same-sex marriage that set him firmly in opposition to two sacred cows of the secular media, feminism and gay rights, his equally courageous defense of Vatican Council II as a council of both continuity and reform, which brought down on his head the wrath of  people seeking to depict Vatican II as a radical break with tradition–all this and much more.

But it is also possible that he’ll be best remembered as the pope who resigned.

That might seem to be a diminishment of the man and his achievements, but it isn’t. Simply as a practical matter, Benedict’s action sets an important modern precedent that could continue to serve the Church and the papacy well in years to come in the face of rising longevity in combination with crises now unforeseen.

Beyond that, though, I hope Benedict’s decision will come to be seen and appreciated for what it so clearly was: the prayerful discernment and acceptance of a new stage in the unfolding of his personal vocation. All of us can learn from that.


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Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • Nicely written. I never thought of personal vocation as Personal Discernment in terms of ‘stepping down’ as Gods will, rather to vocations of Priesthood (Celibacy) or Fatherhoood (Of Marriage and Family)

  • LizEst

    Whenever one person is compared to another it reminds me of the parable of the pharisee and the sinner (or publican as the person was called in the “old” days), wherein the pharisee compares himself to the sinner. What’s the sense of that? Only God knows the heart of each and every one of us. Only God is the judge. What’s important for us is to be merciful and to pray for all those who need our prayer. Right now, we need to pray particularly for our present Pope Benedict XVI, the college of cardinals and our future Pope.

    ps. Re Parkinson’s disease: Even Parkinson’s manifests differently in different people. Not everyone gets the same symptoms. Pope John Paul II had a Parkinson’s that allowed him to do all he did until he died. Not all Parkinson’s sufferers would be able to do that. In fact, I would venture to say, most would not be able to give that kind of witness.

  • Peter Nyikos

    This is the best essay from a theological perspective on Benedict’s retirement [why call it a resignation?] that I’ve seen yet. Thank you, Russell.

    The best essay I’ve seen from a historical perspective was Father Orsi’s, also here at Catholic Exchange:

  • lightedlamp94

    Even after reading this I still feel that a vocation is given to us by God. We are chosen and obligated to carry on to the bitter end. My son went to World Youth Day in Spain with Pope Benedict XVI. He feels like the Pope has let the Catholic Youth down. In a world filled with lots of confusion, we needed a hero. I can’t resign my role as a wife and mother. We live in a diocese that isn’t very orthodox. I hear people equating the Pope’s decision with not needing to suffer. The hallmark of our faith is it makes sense out of suffering in a world that takes a pill for every ailment. I love the Pope. My heart aches at his decision because it opens our church up to more ridicule and division. I am always concerned when the world tells me how to feel about something. I pray everyday, I have 12 children, and I’ve given my life’s work to something greater than myself. Why can’t I be free to allow the Holy Spirit to do its work in me. No one should be commenting in my opinion. We should be too busy praying for the conversion of America.