Pope Benedict is the fourth Pope of my lifetime, but the first to ascend the Throne of Peter during my adulthood; yet when I think of him, I feel as though I am one of the kids in this picture. I always felt a more personal attachment to this Pope than to his predecessor, even though the latter's reign began when I was eight, and ended when I was 34. Pope John Paul II traveled extensively and visited his flock all over the world; yet in a way, his rock-star charisma made him seem more remote and inaccessible, at least to me. Benedict has always seemed closer, more fatherly and down-to-earth, even with his staggering intellect and long list of books and scholarly achievements. I have often thought that if I were to meet Pope Benedict face-to-face, I would cry like a baby. The sun has now set on the last full day of his reign, and -- barring a miracle -- I will not meet him in this life; I will cry like a baby anyway.
Some people think that by abdicating, the Holy Father is running out on his family. If he had decided to quit being a Catholic, then I think the case for abandonment could be made. But he is going to stay in the Vatican and devote himself to a life of prayer in the bosom of the Church. He is no more running out on us than a grandfather does who hands over the active headship of his family to his son, and lives out his days at home amid his loved ones. Prayer is no less service to the Church than the active life of a reigning Pope, and no less important. In fact, one of the reasons the Church has suffered so greatly in recent decades is precisely because not enough of her children -- even in religious houses -- have been living lives grounded in prayer.
Prayer will be Pope Benedict's last labor of love for the Church, in whose service he has worn himself out. The hard work, long hours, grueling schedule and -- above all -- the rebellion and intransigence of people even within the Church have sapped the Pope's vitality. I am still thinking about St. John Bosco's 1862 prophecy of the fallen Pope. This prophecy seems even more relevant now that the Holy Father has dispensed with the customary waiting period for the beginning of the next conclave. "But hardly is the Pontiff dead," said Don Bosco, "than another Pope takes his place. The pilots, having met together, have elected the Pope so promptly that the news of the death of the Pope coincides with the news of the election of the successor." Who can say yet whether this is the moment referred to? But if it is, we can find consolation in what comes next: the enemies lose courage, and are ultimately routed.
Within hours, Benedict XVI will cease to be Pope, and the sede vacante will begin. God bless Pope Benedict, and the new Pope, whoever he is, upon whom will be laid burdens and responsibilities the like of which we will never be asked to assume.