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logoRobert Mickens  |  Mar. 2, 2015

One of the most difficult Gospel injunctions for Catholic journalists and commentators is: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged.”

Because if we are honest, making judgments is very much a part of what we do when we try to analyze and interpret events or decisions that happen within the church, especially those concerning its leaders.

And the past two years have been extremely eventful and marked by many important decisions, especially in matters concerning the papacy.

We recalled one of the most historic events on Saturday with the second anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s official resignation — the day he became the first pope in modern times to freely step down as bishop of Rome.

His most beloved admirers, as well as his sharpest critics, continue to praise him for making this courageous decision and for, more or less, keeping a quiet and low profile in retirement.

These past few days, he has once again been credited for ensuring that this novel arrangement he reintroduced in the church has been peaceful and not disruptive of unity.

But Pope Francis also deserves a lot of credit for the way this has played out.

Had someone else been elected Benedict’s successor two years ago, it is quite possible that the church would still be living through the turbulence that was swirling in Rome at the time of the Bavarian pope’s resignation.

That’s because Benedict and his aides had taken specific steps to guarantee that, as far as possible, there would be seamless continuity from one pontificate to the other. They did so over a period of several months, even before the former pope announced on Feb. 11, 2013, his intention to resign.

The arrangements they made very likely would have had a constraining effect on a successor any less decisive or self-assured as Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Benedict XVI had decided as far back as October 2012 that he would resign the papacy, and it was around that same time he already decided where he would live out his retirement — just a few minutes’ walk from the official papal residence in the Apostolic Palace. Already that autumn, he discreetly commissioned the complete renovation of a three-story convent in the Vatican Gardens known as the Mater Ecclesia Monastery, home since 1994 to four different communities of contemplative nuns.

When it was finally made public that this would be his retirement residence, it was learned that his private secretary, Msgr. Georg Ganswein, and four consecrated lay virgins would also live there with him. The news was somewhat curious. In December 2012, already planning to announce his retirement just a couple months later, Benedict had appointed Ganswein prefect of the papal household and made him archbishop.

This new provision seemed clear enough. It was unlikely that whoever was elected the new pope would replace the then-56-year-old German prelate lest he offend a man that had only recently appointed him. Thus, Ganswein was destined to become, in his dual role as overseer of the papal palace and live-in secretary to Benedict, the intermediary between old pope and his successor.

But it never materialized, principally because the newly elected Pope Francis decided immediately not to live in the papal apartments. He made the unprecedented and (to many at the Vatican) shocking decision to reside at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a large clergy residence and hotel next to St. Peter’s Basilica where the cardinals were housed during the conclave.

Had anyone else become pope in 2013, it is almost certain he’d be living in the 15th-century apostolic palace, which has been the main residence of every pope since 1870. Most observers agree that Pope Francis’ decision not to do so remains one of the most important “reforms” in his pontificate because of the way it has helped to demystify the papacy and further eradicate the remnants of the old papal court and its mentality. But it also helped him create his own space and style without feeling beholden to a strict line of continuity with his erudite and much-published predecessor.

Francis has shown no signs whatsoever of being constrained by or uncomfortable with the (sometimes controversial, sometimes celebrated) legacy of his still living predecessor, Joseph Ratzinger, a man whose theological views had become quasi-normative for the entire church during the last four decades.

The new pope was given no say in where the former pope would live, what he would wear or what he would be called. Benedict made those decisions unilaterally, even assuming the title “pope emeritus” despite the fact most of the church’s canon lawyers said he should more properly be called “bishop-emeritus of Rome.”

If a Ratzinger protégé — or, again, anyone lacking the self-possession so obvious in Francis — were today the pope, it’s quite conceivable that the “new arrangement” created by a papal resignation might have developed very differently than the way it’s currently being played out.

Few cardinals in Benedict’s circle had the temerity to proffer the fraternal correction that would have most benefited him during difficult moments of his pontificate. It’s hard to imagine that any of them as his successor would have felt free to modify even slightly the language he used and the focus he set during his pontificate.

Francis has been able to do so. And in a remarkably inoffensive way that has shown respect for Benedict’s contributions without feeling constrained to merely perpetuate them.

Pope Francis has said Benedict’s courageous act means that it has now become a normal part of the life of the church for the bishop of Rome to resign.

Hopefully, before Francis also steps down one day, he will have consulted the best minds in the church and codified clear procedures for doing so.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]