When the announcement lit up Smartphones of receivers of news-update worldwide, initial reactions ranged from shock to betrayal to joy. But despite the variety of these emotional responses to a simple phrase such as CNN’s ten-word, Pope Benedict to resign at end of month, Vatican says, announcing the end of a papacy that has been relatively lackluster, most all opened their mouth for a shorter phrase to escape: Whhhhaaatttt? (or, in Italian, cooommmme maiiii??). This often followed by another didn’t see that one coming.
When you think about it in terms of the idea that the title is a post, not an identity, the option is plausible. Popes are so as part of their job definition (albeit a bit different than your run-of-the-mill nine to five that most of us are accustomed to), and so should be able to resign, just like anyone else. But after this the lines begin to blur…as Pope, he is considered infallible. But if he resigns, does this mean now he is mere human? Will he act as an advisor to the next pope? Are there even plans in place for his retirement, and who is paying for that?
Past Papal Resignations
Hungry for answers, we turn to history for the answers to these questions. However, history is unfortunately of little help in this matter. The last pope to excuse himself from the gilded throne was Gregory XII, whose position during the tumultuous time of the Western Schism in the early 15th century was a complicated one. The Roman Catholic Church was in a tumultuous period of disagreement, during which a Pope resided at the Vatican in Rome while another [anti-pope] resided in Avignon. The conflict escalated to point at which the only solution was for both to abdicate their thrones. The seat remained royal-papal-behind-free for a period of time, and Gregory XII died a non-pope before the new Pope Martin V was appointed (actually before the conclave was even held), fading into historical oblivion. In fact, Italians don’t even recognize this figure as having been a resigned pope. However, it would be interesting to see how he behaved during the vacancy after having stepped down…can’t imagine he was completely unheard from.
The other, more accepted instance of papal resignation was in the late thirteenth century, when the elderly St. Celestine V became overwhelmed by the heavy political burden of the papal office and stepped aside only five months into his appointment. He was alive for the conclave and appointment of his successor, but is said to have retired peacefully and quietly. It’s been said that Pope Benedict XVI prayed at his tomb in 2009 – perhaps asking for guidance.
Although the future holds many uncertainties as to how the current pope will live and act no longer holding the role of St. Peter, there are a few things that are certain. Firstly, at 8:00pm on February 28, Pope Benedict XVI (should we go back to just Joseph?) will no longer be the head of the Catholic Church. The following March, the conclave will commence, during which all cardinals under 80 years of age (those over 80 too old to vote, which is an interesting fact to consider, since the pope is 85 and not too old to act as head of the Church) are sequestered into the Sistine Chapel to vote for the new pope. In days past, the possibility of disagreement was so high that the cardinals were given less and less food as the days passed in hopes that they would make a decision more quickly. Today, the group of cardinals usually gets the job done, and is well-fed.
Who will be the next pope? Although it can be any baptized Roman Catholic, it will most likely be one of the well-fed cardinals. Which one, though, only time will tell.