Brandeis chaplain says pope stepping down will create future discussion on the retirement of prelates in the Church
By Jaclyn Reiss, Town Correspondent
As Pope Benedict XVI announced today to widespread surprise that he would step down later this month, citing old age, a local priest says the pope’s rare resignation will open the gates for discussion on retirement for high-ranking Catholic leaders.
The Rev. Walter Cuenin, the Catholic chaplain and coordinator of the Interfaith Chaplaincy at Brandeis University, said the pope’s announcement would be beneficial overall to the Church.
“Down the road, as medical care continues to develop and it’s probable that folks will be older and live longer, the issue of retirement and stepping down will become an issue in the future,” Cuenin said over the phone. “Him doing this now makes it clear that it’s possible to do, and that it can be done with dignity and respect.”
Cuenin also pointed out that other high-ranking Catholic officials, such as bishops and cardinals, are given an age limit on when they can vote.
“This is unusual, for us to experience a papal retirement,” he said. “What it does is gives the possibility for future popes that need to step down, it shows them that it would be OK to do.”
Cuenin said the pope’s physical limitations could also be seen on television, especially in how the leader was carried in to services on a rolling platform instead of striding in, unsupported.
“He doesn’t even walk into St. Peter’s Basilica,” he said. “Everyone can see his age is taking its toll.”
Cuenin said he lived in Rome for several years, and although he never met Pope Benedict XVI face-to-face, he had met his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in a private mass at the then-leader’s residency years ago.
“With Pope John Paul II’s declining health, there was a lot of discussion on if he would resign or retire,” Cuenin said. “This move of Pope Benedict is a good thing for the overall future of the church.”
Cuenin mentioned that he had no idea on how the pope’s retirement would play out – for example, where the top Catholic would live, what he would wear, and if he would consult to the Church after he stepped down.
“It’s uncharted territory for all of us,” he said. “We haven’t lived with a pope who has retired.”
He said that although he liked certain things about Pope Benedict – for example, how he traveled frequently and openly discussed faith with other religious leaders, and how Catholic officials welcomed to Brandeis students whom Cuenin would bring on trips to Rome – he disliked the pope’s acceptance of Bishop Richard Williamson, who in 2009 sparked worldwide controversy by denying the Holocaust’s existence.
“No one pope or priest, including myself, is without mistakes,” Cuenin said. “I thought it was done with poor planning, the way he welcomed [Williamson] back to the Church.”
Cuenin said that as the Church looks to elect a new leader, he hopes that the new top Catholic official will continue reaching out and fostering connections with leaders of different organized religions throughout the world.
He also said that he wished to join the rest of the Catholic community in wishing the pope the most enjoyment that rest and relaxation can provide in retirement.
“He surprised a lot of people in the vigor and strength that he had, and he did a lot of traveling around world,” Cuenin said. “I hope he has time to read and study and pray.”