The resignation or retirement of Pope Benedict XVI from one of the most powerful posts in the world is a noble move that gives an inspiring example to other world leaders – many of whom have a tendency to cling to power.
At one of his last public appearances, the Ash Wednesday Mass, Pope Benedict, in a moving sermon, said he was retiring because he believed he was physically and mentally not strong enough to carry out the world mission of bringing about unity, peace and justice. The venue of the Mass had been shifted to St. Peter’s Basilica to accommodate thousands of people who turned up to say goodbye to a living Pope. This happened for the first time in more than 600 years, and the Vatican Secretary of State, so moved by the occasion, unexpectedly came to the pulpit after the sermon to pay a glowing tribute to the Holy Father for some 8 years of inspiring service to the Church and the world. For the first time in the Basilica, thousands of people gave a loud round of applause.
Emotions and inspirations apart, the wonderful example set by Pope Benedict needs to be followed by world leaders including those in Sri Lanka. One of the most devastating or self-destructive temptations for those in leadership is to cling to power, misuse or abuse their power for personal gain or glory. Those in political or other areas of leadership are also tempted to seek popularity and prestige, and they develop an acquisitive instinct that drives a leader to become a rich fool. So they use subtle or corrupt means to plunder the wealth and resources of the country and build bigger barns or secret Swiss bank accounts. Excessive or absolute power makes them mentally unbalanced, and they are deluded into thinking that life is not transient and impermanent. Tonight they might die and then who will get all the ill-gotten wealth?
The United States Constitution – considered to be one of the most enlightened documents produced by human beings – lays down a strict law that no President can seek re-election for more than two terms, that means eight years. The US constitution’s authors, in their wisdom, believe that going on for more than two terms with absolute power could corrupt a person absolutely, not only in work and policy matters, but also mentally. Recent examples give convincing proof of this. For instance, Britain’s Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher – known as the Iron Lady – was popular and powerful for two terms. But when she insisted on going on for a third term, her own party threw her out, and today the Iron Lady suffers from dementia.
In Sri Lanka these are good lessons for our President who has absolute power, and even to the Opposition UNP Leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe who has been clinging to office for some 19 years. They need to learn from Pope Benedict, and the benediction flowing from him. They need to learn from history and decide whether they want to end up in the garbage dumps or find a place in the golden pages of history.