For the first time in six centuries, a Pope is resigning. I admire Pope Benedict’s willingness to face forthrightly the reality of how advancing age has affected his ability to perform his duties by handing off leadership to another Pope to be chosen soon by the College of Cardinals.
Although I have no special insight into the inner workings of the Catholic Church, I saw the last years of my grandfather, Spencer W. Kimball, who remained President and Prophet of the Mormon Church from 1974 until the day he died in 1985 at the age of 90. At the age of 83 (in 1978), he declared that he had received a revelation from God that the Mormon priesthood—and all of the ceremonies in Mormon temples—should be opened to those of African ancestry, who had previously been barred from ordination to the priesthood and full participation in Mormon temple ceremonies. But from at least age 86 on, my grandfather was seldom up to carrying on a normal conversation. His position as leader of the Mormon Church still mattered because other Mormon Church leaders tried to do what they thought he would have, but the decisions he himself made were at the level of nodding his head to something suggested by one of his lieutenants—especially the then relatively young Gordon B. Hinckley, who later went on to lead the Mormon Church in a very visible way because of his high level of comfort with the news media.
My grandfather believed it was his duty to serve as head of the Mormon Church until God released him from that position by death. Part of his reasoning was the tradition within the Mormon Church that upon the death of the Prophet, the longest-serving surviving Apostle becomes the new Prophet. Thus, he believed that the timing of his own death might be part of the way in which God chose who would become the next Prophet. For Pope Benedict, there is no such consideration, since the next Pope is chosen by the decision of the College of Cardinals rather than by life and death. But still, he had to buck six centuries worth of tradition that Popes serve until the day they die—a span of time more than three times as long as the Mormon Church has been in existence.
All of us face death, and many of us will face serious disability before death. Forthrightly admitting those possibilities to ourselves—and dealing with their actual arrival with grace, as Pope Benedict has—can both help us lead a good life and help ensure that those people and causes we love are taken care of when we are gone or fading, in body or mind.