Author: Rev. Dr. Athanasius D. McVay
Only a few days ago, it seemed impossible that a Pope would resign. Then, in the words of the dean of the College of Cardinals, the world was struck by a “lightening bolt in clear skies” when Benedict XVI announced his abdication as Bishop of Rome and Head of the Universal Church. Since February 11 we have all been reflecting on the significance of the papal decision. And no doubt Eastern Catholics will be reflecting on it from their own unique perspective, as Orthodox Christians in full ecclesial communion with the Roman Pontiff.
Pope Benedict’s gesture is only possible, and perhaps only warranted, in the our day and age. No Pope has stepped down for six-hundred years and, until the late twentieth century, bishops only resigned in extraordinary circumstances. When a bishop was no longer fit to govern his diocese, a coadjutor was appointed to govern while the bishop officially retained his headship.
Then came the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and the sweeping reforms that followed. Of these reforms was the introduction of mandatory retirement for all pastors of souls and for church officials. Bishops and priests were required to submit their resignations upon reaching the age of seventy five. In 1970 Pope Paul VI extended this law to cardinals who, nonetheless, were permitted to continue to take part in the College of Cardinals until the age of eighty years, at which time they automatically ceased to be decision-making members of the Roman Curia. Yet the head of the Universal Church, the Pope, was not subjected to this legislation (indeed the Roman Pontiff is the lawgiver).
Mandatory retirement caused controversy within church circles. Some protested, some complained, some grumbled under their breath, while others accepted retirement willingly and even gladly. Over the years, once bishops had submitted their resignations, the Pope sometimes chose to extend their governance beyond the retirement age, until a suitable replacement could be found. At the end of the twentieth century, Pope John Paul II mitigated his predecessor’s law somewhat, allowing cardinals the over-eighty to take part in initial conclave discussions, up to but not including the closed voting in the Sistine Chapel.
In the Eastern Catholic Churches the introduction of mandatory retirement for bishops caused not a little controversy. Some argued that such a reform did not suit the traditions nor theological sensibilities of the East. An key issue concerned the Fathers and Heads of Eastern Catholic Churches, such as patriarchs and major-archbishops. Many argued that, like the Pope, heads of their Particular Churches (sui iuris), should not be subject to mandatory retirement.
In the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church Cardinal Yosyf Slipyj strongly opposed such reforms and would not retire at eighty. Two other Ukrainian bishops followed his example: Neil Savaryn of Edmonton and Isydor Boretsky of Toronto. In the case of the two Ukrainian Canadian bishops, the Apostolic See appointed administrators to effectively replace them. In Slipyj’s case, however, Pope John Paul II convoked the Synod of Ukrainian Bishops to elect a coadjutor and future successor, while Slipyj continued to head the Church until his death in 1984.
Part of the retirement issue was resolved in 1990 when John Paul II promulgated the Code of Canons of the Eastern Catholic Churches. While requiring all Eastern Catholic priests and bishops to submit their resignations, the Eastern Code did not make a similar stipulation regarding patriarchs and major-archbishops. Neither does it stipulate what measures should be taken when the Head of the Particular Church reaches the point where he is unable to effectively govern.
Both Slipyj and his successor Myroslav-Ivan Lubachivsky became very frail at the end of their mandates. While their spiritual headship was preserved, the important question arose as to who was to govern in their stead. To resolve such questions the Apostolic See appointed administrators. The Synod of Ukrainian Bishops selected Bishop Lubomyr Husar as locum tenens and, upon Lubachivsky’s death in in 2001, it chose Husar as Major-Archbishop. Within hours of confirming the election, Pope John Paul conferred the cardinatial dignity upon Husar, making him a member of the de facto Senate of the Universal Church.
Over the centuries, not a single one of the Ukrainian cardinals (Isydor of Kyiv +1463, Mykhaylo Levytsky +1858, Sylvestr Sembratovych +1898) attended a conclave. In 1978 Slipyj was excluded due to age and, thus, in 2005 Lubomyr Husar became the first Ukrainian cardinal to cast his vote in a papal election. However, by that time, he had already lost his eyesight and had to recite the oaths from memory, which eventually led Husar to ponder if he could continue to effectively lead the Ukrainian Church.
Although not required to resign, Patriarch Lubomyr could certainly do so voluntarily. In 2011 confered with Pope Benedict beforemaking his decision to step down. And since then two other Eastern Patriarchs have followed Husar’s example and retired due to age and infirmity. Perhaps Benedict XVI considered these resignations in making his own decision to abdicate.
In 2011, the Synod of Ukrainian Hierarchs selected a very young and energetic successor to Husar, Sviatoslav Shevchuk. Immediately after his election, Major-Archbishop (Patriarch) Sviatoslav traveled to Rome to manifest ecclesial communion with the Roman Pontiff. It was very telling to witness the Universal Pontiff addressing this young man as “Your Beatitude”, and to hear the new Head of our Church call the Bishop of Rome “Most Holy Father.”
Once again, in 2013 no Ukrainian cardinal will be able to take part in the impending conclave. Cardinal Husar will turn eighty only a few days before, and the retired Latin Archbishop of Lviv, Cardinal Marian Jaworski, exceeded the age-limit in 2006.
While all Catholics feel a great loss at the abdication of their Universal Father, Ukrainian Catholics still look forward to the day when, God willing, Pope Benedict’s successor will call upon Patriarch Sviatoslav to join the universal Senate, becoming perhaps the youngest member of the College of Cardinals.