After reading in the news media for the past 24 hours that the Pope had once considered resigning in 2000, I re-read the part of his spiritual testament where he supposedly indicated such a consideration. An Associated Press article reports:
In the final entry, he appeared to consider stepping aside. "Now, in the year during which my age reaches 80 years, it is necessary to ask if it is not the time to repeat the words of the biblical Simeon, 'Nunc Dimittis.'" The reference is to the passage, "Now Master you may let your servant go."
Taken out of context, certainly it looks like the Pope is considering resignation as he writes this in March 2000. The Latin "Nunc dimittis" translates into English as "now you are dismissing" and does indeed refer to Simeon saying, "Now Master you may let your servant go," as the AP reports. The UK's Daily Mirror strips out mention of the biblical Simeon, assuming that it has no deeper meaning, and instead simply says:
He wrote: "I have to ask myself if it is not the time to say it's over."
But is the Pope really considering "dismissing" himself from the office of Supreme Pontiff? Is he contemplating whether his time as Pope might be over? Or has his spiritual testament been misinterpreted?
Putting this excerpt from his testament back into the original context, these questions cannot be answered so readily. Recall in chapter two of St. Luke's Gospel that Simeon had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until seeing the Messiah. Later, when Jesus is brought before him in the temple, Simeon proclaims, "Nunc dimittis." The full Canticle of Simeon to which John Paul II refers in his spiritual testament follows:
Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel. (Lk 2:29-32)
It is crucial for us to remember, however, that this canticle is preceded by mention of when Simeon's death will come. In my opinion, this is how John Paul II wanted us to read this part of his testament: the Latin phrase becomes related to Simeon's death and so too should become related to his own. When the Pope refers to "Nunc dimittis," he is not considering being "dismissed," as the literal translation would lead one to believe. Rather, he is contemplating how near he may be to death.
After all, as surrounding text supports, he recalls that he is already 80 years old and has lived through a "difficult century," in which he was nearly assassinated. These events made him realize more than ever, that his life and death are truly in the Hands of God. Finally, he concludes this thought with, "I ask him to call me back when He Himself wishes."
Admittedly, the Pope's language is ambiguous and no interpretation can be certain; therefore, it does not call for the sensational headlines we've seen lately in the newspapers to the effect of "Pope considered resigning." Simply put, Popes do not resign. While canon law provides for a Pope to step down if necessary, no Pope has willingly resigned since Celestine V did so in the 13th century. To me, the Pope's recollection of the biblical Simeon is a celebration of the former's longevity in the face of peril, not a consideration of resignation. If he is contemplating anything, it is his own life and death and how near he may be to the latter. Humbly, the Pope acknowledges that it is not up to him to decide when his Papacy, or life, ends, but rather that God alone must decide his fate.