As everything is full of comments on Pope Benedict I am adding my mite. My point isn’t the usual one. The Pope states that his physical and mental faculties are not, in his view, at a point where they will allow him to properly undertake the huge responsibilities of his vocation. Well, the Pope can give me fifteen years and more, but I have some inkling of what he means; and I respect him the more for doing what he has done.
The hardest part of growing older is that, usually without realising it, you gradually cease to be able to function at the top of your game. Walks which a decade ago, or less, I would have done with ease and with no breathlessness, are now beyond me. I went through a spell when, as a stubborn man, I simply refused to acknowledge this and pressed myself as I had always done. But six months of this was sufficient to convince even me to take the less steep gradients to the peaks; I can still see the views over the Calder Valley; I just get there by a different route. But a time will come when even that is beyond me.
The mental stuff is harder. I feel no diminution of my mental capacities, but I can no longer read at a glance, take it in and recall it perfectly a week later. All my life my memory has been a huge asset. It made examinations a piece of cake, and it enabled me to remember every boy in class after the first session. But if I am honest, it takes me longer to get through a book than it used to, and I am not sure that I can focus as intensely, or for as long as I used to.
I also find that I get tired more easily that I used to. Before I stopped teaching there were times when I would arrive home, have a stiff scotch and then doze quietly – something that, at 50, I should never have done (if only because I’d have had a second scotch and then gone for a walk). And all I had my shoulders was responsibility for a school and my family. I was fortunate enough to be asked to postpone retirement, but by the time it came, I had the option of not doing it as we had gone past the days of compulsion; I was happy to go.
If I am honest with myself, by that stage I was happy to go. Better go before they start asking why you are not already gone, and enquiring about your departure date, was my view. That’s the one thing I have in common with the Pope.
It takes courage and humility and self-knowledge to come to the view that you can’t carry on as you used to. It is a rare quality in a man. The great Gladstone carried on into his mid eighties, and when he finally resigned, his senior colleague pulled from his pocket a sheaf of yellowing notes to say farewell.
The Pope is probably the greatest intellectual to occupy the See of Rome in more than half a millennium; he is also one of the greatest pastors; he has also shown himself to be a diplomat of rare qualities. The only people who come badly out of this are his atheist critics; Dawkins comes out of it looking like a moral moron with a mental age of 6; others fare no better.
Pope Benedict, always an impressive figure as a pontiff, cuts a great figure as a human being. Whatever my theological differences with him and his church, I salute a great human being and a great Christian. As the Orthodox have it: ‘Many years, many years!’