I hope you will forgive me the impertinence of writing to you – I who am not only young and a layperson but also one of those "separated brethren" of the protestant churches. The only claim I can make on your attention is that I have prayed for you sometimes, and so have come to feel that curious bond of affection that grows up between lives otherwise so widely separated but joined, as if under one roof, in prayer.
So you are stepping down, handing the job over to a younger man. You explain that you are tired and old, that you want to retire to the cloister and eke out your last days in lonely prayer. When your predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, noticed that he was no longer young, he turned even his age and illness, even his dying, into a visible sign of God's presence in frail flesh. But you've taken another road. The silence of the cloister, and beyond that the silence of the grave and the deeper silence of the living Word, have been calling to you, and you have answered that call.
And who could blame you? You haven't exactly presided over the brightest hour of the church's history, have you? But none of us gets to choose our time. We are here, now, and we have to make the best of it, even if at times we seem to spend our lives paying off the debts of former generations, or suffering for their mistakes. Leading the church must feel sometimes like trying to keep a ship on course when someone else has been there before you putting holes in the hull. And then you get to the end of it all and wonder whether you did a decent job or whether you just created more holes for the next person to deal with.
But forgive me, Holy Father, I am forgetting myself. It is, after all, the church we're talking about (I will even use the Catholic capital for once: the Church), not just some troublesome institution. And the church has no leaders, only servants. Or rather it has one leader, always the same, he who loved us and washed us from our sins by his own blood. How easy to forget that the church today – with all its troubles, its sins, its sadness, its calamitous attempts to manage its PR – is the very same church that was planted in the testimony of apostles, watered by the blood of martyrs, nourished by the prayers of holy saints. How easy to forget that the church is not ours but God's, and that God leads and sustains the church by secret means of which no tongue can tell. You never forgot this, Holy Father, that is why you had the freedom to take this step, to lay aside your office and creep unburdened into the mystery of prayer.
I don't know what your legacy will be, Holy Father, and none of us can guess where the church's future lies. Except to say that the church's life today is hidden in the same place it was always hidden, in Christ who is in God.
Today, Holy Father, when the ash of last year's burned palm branches is smeared across my face, I will pray for you. I will pray for your successor – brave fellow, whoever he is! – and for all those poor courageous souls who hand their lives over into the service of God's church, living by trust when they cannot see the way, living by hope when their hearts are heavy, living by love because love is at the bottom of it all – for God is love.
Yours respectfully in Christ, &c.