By pointing out Benedict’s courage to retire, Francis essentially announced that his papacy supports the move to retire. He also left himself and future popes a possible way to leave the post, which is traditionally held until the pontiff passes away.
Francis spoke to pilgrims, tourists, and Romans in St. Peter’s Square, saying that Benedict understood through prayer that God wanted him to step down from the position.
When he announced his retirement, Benedict explained that he felt he no longer had the mental or physical strength to continue as head of the Catholic church. But the resignation was a disgrace for some traditionalists, who believe the pope should remain in his position until death.
However, Pope Francis praised Benedict’s decision while speaking from a window of the Apostolic Palace to the crowd below. He explained that Benedict followed his conscience “with a great sense of discernment and courage.” The pontiff added:
“We must learn to listen more to our conscience… This doesn’t mean following one’s own ego, doing whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. [Instead] conscience is an interior space to discern, to understand the path I must follow.”
Francis added that the former Pope Benedict XVI “has given us a great example in this sense, when the Lord made him understand, in prayer, what step he had to take.”
After his retirement, Benedict moved to a Vatican monastery. He wished to dedicate the rest of his life to prayer and meditation. Benedict was a longtime Vatican-based German cardinal and was already elderly when he was elected to succeed Pope John Paul II in 2005.
It is unclear what effect Pope Francis’s praise will have on critics of Benedict’s decision to step down.