A common misunderstanding among non-(Roman)-Catholics is the relationship between parishioners and their leaders, particularly the Pope. Most think of the Pope as the head of a large bureaucracy, and so he is. But, as with many things Catholic, and, in particular, Roman, the relationship is more familial. The organization of the Catholic Church is based on the organizational patterns of the Roman Empire, especially pater familias, “father of the family”. In fact, the word pattern itself is from the French patron, which is derived from the Latin meaning “like a father”.
Our English word is derived from the Middle English fader, Old English fæder. Old English was formed from the fusion of dialects brought to England by the Germanic Anglo-Saxons; father is a cognate with the German vater. Since English and German are both Indo-European languages, it is not surprising to discover that other Indo-European languages have similar words for father, including the Latin pater and the Greek patḗr. You see the pattern.
In English, papa, from the declensions of the Greek (e.g., pappa), was originally a child’s word, like our daddy. It first surfaced as a courtly affectation, demonstrating the user’s education which would include familiarity with classic tongues. It was not used by the common English folk until the late 18th century.
This etymological flight of fancy is meant to illustrate a significant point about the meaning of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, a point that might be lost on Americans, or at least non-Catholics: a pope cannot resign any more than a father can. There is no word for, no conception of, an “ex-father”. In this sense the resignation of the Pope is pregnant with meaning. For decades, there has been a demolishing of traditional familial patterns. To this day, the Catholic Church is one of the few institutions that resist even superficially divorce. Like Henry VIII, it has been declared that is none of the church’s business. To the Catholic Church, the conception of family is woven into the very fabric its organizational structure, including the names they call one another. The collapse of the family would be enough to break an old Catholic’s heart, and health. The resignation of Papa carries enormous symbolic meaning as a capitulation to the modern notion that we can arbitrarily change familiar roles–man and woman, husband and wife, father and child, Pope and ex-Pope.
One must wonder what Dante, who consigned the last Pope who resigned to Hell, would have thought.