My friend Malcolm made a very powerful point in his comments on the issue of the retirement of the Pope. The Papacy is not simply another job from which one can retire, and there is a sense in which is detracts something from it by treating it as though it is.
As Christians we are all called out. The early followers of ‘the way’ as it was called (before we were first called Christians at Antioch) were distinguished by being called out from the ways of this world. This is clear from what may be the earliest Christian manual, The Didache:
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbour as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect.
The sense of the document has resonance with all Christians. Its writers knew no Pope, but they did know prophets, teachers and Apostles, and advised communities to appoint bishops and deacons, as some have called them, although the Greek words can also be translated as overseers and servants. You cannot read the document without being impressed with the way in which its writers translate Christian teaching so well into so brief a text.
Such communities stood aside and apart from those in which they were embedded. We know from other sources that it was this quality which attracted suspicion from the authorities; but it also attracted many converts.
I am not, here, going to invoke any controversy about Popes, but simply want to comment that all Christians take on themselves a special charism when they receive the Lord. To my mind, one of the problems with the idea of an ordained priesthood separate from the priesthood of all is that it distracts us from the fact that it is not just one set of men who are set aside as called out by their ministry – we all are.
Some traditions have added qualifications to the succession to the Apostles, although there is no scriptural warrant for many of them. We need to recall, however, that prophets and teachers were equally important to the early Christians. One of the things which Protestantism brings to any ecumenical discussion is a reminder that there is a priesthood of all – and that even if you can retire from being Pope, you can’t from being part of the priesthood of believers.