Pope Benedict XVI was to be commended for his decision to resign in light of his growing physical frailty and for committing his time of retirement to prayer, the Vicar-General of the Diocese of Melbourne, Bishop Barbara Darling, said after the German pontiff’s historic decision on 11 February.

Bishop Darling, who has shared responsibility for the Diocese with her two fellow assistant bishops during Archbishop Philip Freier’s leave and trip to Myanmar, noted that a new Pope would be coming to office about the same time as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby.

“Anglicans in the Diocese of Melbourne were surprised with many others to hear of the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to retire as the Pontiff later this month,” Bishop Darling said. “We commend his decision to acknowledge his growing physical frailty and his response to serve God through a life committed to prayer.

“As members of the Roman Catholic Church adjust to this news, we assure them of our prayers and support as they seek to elect a new Bishop of Rome who will lead them with wisdom, prayer and insight.  We welcome our new Anglican leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, as he takes up his office at a similar time to the new Pope.  It is my prayer that we may be able to continue our Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogues and seek together to bring the hope and peace of Christ into our materialistic world.”

Archbishop Welby said he had received the news of Pope Benedict’s decision to lay down the burden of office as Bishop of Rome from 28 February “with a heavy heart but complete understanding”, saying he had fulfilled his office with great dignity, insight and courage.

“As I prepare to take up office I speak not only for myself, and my predecessors as Archbishop, but for Anglicans around the world, in giving thanks to God for a priestly life utterly dedicated, in word and deed, in prayer and in costly service, to following Christ,” said Archbishop Welby, whose public inauguration of his ministry will be his enthronement in Canterbury Cathedral on 21 March. “He has laid before us something of the meaning of the Petrine ministry of building up the people of God to full maturity.

“In his (2010) visit to the United Kingdom, Pope Benedict showed us all something of what the vocation of the See of Rome can mean in practice – a witness to the universal scope of the gospel and a messenger of hope at a time when Christian faith is being called into question. In his teaching and writing he has brought a remarkable and creative theological mind to bear on the issues of the day. We who belong to other Christian families gladly acknowledge the importance of this witness and join with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in thanking God for the inspiration and challenge of Pope Benedict’s ministry.

“We pray that God will bless him profoundly in retirement with health and peace of mind and heart, and we entrust to the Holy Spirit those who have a responsibility to elect his successor.”

The Pope told a meeting of cardinals on 11 February that after having repeatedly examined his conscience before God, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry… in the last few months, (strength) has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me”.

Benedict XVI, who turns 86 in April and was elected Pope in 2005, is the first pontiff to resign since well before the Reformation. Gregory XII abdicated in 1415 during the Council of Constance in order to end the Western Schism, while the previous Pope to freely resign from the See of Peter was Celestine V in 1294, a hermit who held office for only five months.

A former Dean of Melbourne and the retiring Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, Canon David Richardson, said the implications for Anglican-Roman Catholic relations in the long term would depend on who was elected to succeed Pope Benedict, but said other relationships continued despite the change in leadership, including global Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogues. For the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, he said, “I imagine it’ll be business as usual”.

Canon Richardson, who is to step down as director and as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See, praised Pope Benedict’s “courage” in deciding to resign.

“I’m shocked, but on the other hand there’s a little voice that’s telling me: ‘You shouldn’t be shocked, you should be impressed that he had the integrity and courage to follow through on that’,” he said. “It’s a courageous thing because it’s so unprecedented.

“Pope Benedict has, on more than one occasion, hinted that if he found that his health wasn’t robust enough to do the job he would resign. I imagine that because (resigning) is so unprecedented, none of us gave his comments the weight that perhaps, in hindsight, they deserved.

“Just as Archbishops of Canterbury can resign and lay down their office and move back into studious pursuits, why can’t popes do it? Just because it hasn’t been done isn’t a reason that it shouldn’t be done. Maybe the action itself will be another thing we (Anglicans and Roman Catholics) have in common.”

Professor Andrew McGowan, the Warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, compared Pope Benedict with the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams (now Lord Williams of Oystermouth), saying that with the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election almost eight years ago, “the western Christian world found itself in the remarkable position of having both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches led by men viewed by many as their leading theologians”.

“Rowan Williams and Ratzinger, although a generation apart in age, had more in common than academic credentials when they came to office,” Professor McGowan wrote on the Eureka Street website on 14 February.

Both were steeped in the theology of the early Christian writers known as the Church Fathers and both had done theology in ways that involved new insights and potential controversy.

“If he subsequently leaned towards tradition more clearly, it is fair to say that Ratzinger has, like Williams, always written and acted with a deep commitment to the truth as well as to his perceptions of the needs of the Church,” Professor McGowan wrote.

“Their shortcomings, real or perceived, have tended to cluster around the Church as institution and the way it treats its members.

“Ratzinger's powerful defence of reason and critique of relativism are more important than his own quick jump from these to intractable positions about a set of difficult moral questions allows many to see. Like Williams, he is capable of defending and promoting a Christianity which is intellectually plausible and challenging not only to obvious forms of moral relativism but also to injustice and environmental irresponsibility.

“His pontificate has not been a time when many beyond the Roman Catholic Church took him seriously in this regard — we could hope that relinquishing the burden of office may free him to be read, and heard, again.”

Andrew Brown, in The Guardian newspaper on 11 February, wrote that Lord Williams had known about the Pope’s plans to resign before Christmas.

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, said: “We have to respect fully the decision of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to resign. With deep respect I have seen how he has carried the responsibility and burdens of his ministry in his advanced age, in a very demanding time for the church.”

“I express my appreciation for his love and commitment to the church and to the ecumenical movement.”

Dr Tveit said “Pope Benedict knows the WCC well”, having been a member of the WCC Faith and Order Commission when he was professor of theology at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. [with ACNS]