What George Washington and Pope Benedict XVI Have in Common

February 11th, 2013

As a history buff and someone who strongly believes that by drawing comparisons from history, we can learn a lot about our own generation, I was struck this morning by the announced resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and how much his character in taking this step is aligned with that of our first president, George Washington.

Before you start thinking that maybe I’ve just been reading too many President’s Day sales ads and have Washington on the brain, here’s my thinking.

Washington had many achievements as president, but one of his greatest accomplishments was his willingness to serve only two terms in office and return to Mount Vernon.  There is no doubt that Washington could have been president for the rest of his life if he’d wanted to be.  At the time of the nation’s founding, some citizens even considered making him king. He wanted no part of that nor did he think it was wise for him to hold onto power until death.

According to the painter, Benjamin West, the defeated King George III asked him after the revolution what Washington would likely do.  West informed him that word was that Washington intended to “return to his farm.”  Reportedly, the King was stunned and replied, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Giving up power willingly is so rare in history that it stands out and begs analysis.  World history is full of stories of great and not so great men who strove to attain and hold power.  Willingly giving up power is almost unheard of.

On its face, one might think that voluntarily relinquishing power is a sign of weakness.  Actually, in my humble opinion, it’s evidence of great strength.

Today, Pope Benedict gave up power because he feels he can no longer do the work that the universal Catholic Church requires.  Since no pope has taken this step since Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415, I’m sure Pope Benedict didn’t take this decision lightly.

It’s interesting to draw the comparisons between Washington and Pope Benedict.  Ironically, neither man really wanted the position to which a country or a church called them.  After the war, Washington was quite content to return to Mount Vernon.  Reportedly, just prior to his selection, Pope Benedict was looking forward to a quiet retirement.  But when called, both men stepped up out of a sense of duty.

As parents and teachers, we spend a great deal of time instructing children about the work and deeds of the powerful.  As important as any lesson we can give them about the proper exercise of power are the examples set by both Washington and Pope Benedict XVI about the wisdom of sometimes relinquishing that power.

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