Well, we’re coming up on it. It’s almost the end of February, and the current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI, will be resigning. The Pope, also known by his given name Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, has cited a lack of mental and physical strength as his reasons for abdicating a papacy that has witnessed eight of the most tumultuous years in recent church history. (1)
According to sources within the church, a new pope will be seated by the Easter holiday at the end of March, possibly sooner. In the meantime, there will indeed be a period of “Sede vacante”, or in English, the “period of the vacant seat.” As happened in 2005 following the death of John Paul II, the college of cardinals will enter conclave under the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, while Ratzinger will live out his remaining days within Vatican City, still being referred to as “His Holiness Benedict XVI”. (2)
Upon looking through the long and storied history of the papacy, Benedict XVI’s reign is far from being the shortest, that’s for sure. Pope Urban VII only reigned for 13 days, and died before his coronation in 1590. It is this aspect of historicity that makes Benedict XVI’s resignation that much more intriguing. It has been almost 600 years since the last papal resignation, that of Pope Gregory XII in 1415 to bring an end to the “Western Schism”. (Interestingly, Gregory XII’s rival claimant to the papacy also carried the name Benedict, Antipope Benedict XIII.)
Like Gregory XII, Benedict XVI’s papacy has, as I mentioned at the outset, been a time of upheaval in the Catholic church. From the sex abuse scandals plaguing several diocese, to the lifting of bishop Richard Williamson’s excommunication, (3) to the pope’s own butler’s disclosure of over a thousand privileged Vatican documents, (4) to the now-circulating rumors of moral corruption within the church hierarchy. (No doubt triggered by the previously mentioned “Vati-Leak” documents to local Italian media! I find the timing of this latest round of scandalous rumors quite curious, given who those documents were leaked to, and who are now making the assertions…) (5)
Like a lot of people on the outside looking in, I find myself examining Benedict XVI’s papacy through the prism of John Paul II. Is that fair? I mean, John Paul II set the bar pretty high for a modern-day pope, and it seems as though measuring up to his example is bound to be a herculean effort for any successive pontiff. As the second-longest reigning pope in the entire history of Catholicism, John Paul II managed to be in the right places, to say and do the right things at the right times in recent history, to amass an impressive list of career highlights.
Commencing his lengthy papacy in 1978 after the death of John Paul I, who Time magazine referred to as “The September Pope” due to his 33-day reign from 26 August to 28 September 1978, John Paul II made it his mission to improve relations between the Holy See, and other faiths including Islam, Judaism and the Anglican Communion.
Two months after the 1981 attempt on then-president Ronald Reagan’s life, John Paul II was also the target of an assassination attempt, which he barely managed to survive. His survival of that attempt, which many in the media proclaimed as “miraculous”, served to increase his notoriety. In turn, he took that notoriety and, like a wide receiver on the receiving end of a “Hail Mary” pass, ran it all the way downfield and across the goal line in a myriad of ways. Pope John Paul II was such a successful and beloved pontiff, that his successor Benedict XVI, circumvented the normal five-year restriction on the beatification of deceased persons, and immediately undertook the process within weeks of John Paul II’s passing, inspired by the calls of “Santo Subito!” from the multitudes assembled at his funeral mass.
Will Pope Benedict XVI be beatified and venerated at some future date? That’s hard to say, given the current tumult in the church. Regardless of this, the mere fact of his resignation warrants attention, not only from those within the Catholic faith, but those with a keen eye for history as well. This is history, my fine young readers, being played out before us in a story stretching back over the past two millennia. (We tend to take for granted, that the news of the pope’s resignation was relayed from Rome, to the rest of the globe in mere seconds. When Gregory XII resigned in 1415, it would have taken weeks for the news to travel as far as London!)
Just for a moment, let’s stop to think of what the world was like during the last papal resignation;
- Christopher Columbus had not even been born yet.
- A Lancastrian king was still ruling England, and the Wars of The Roses wouldn’t be fought for yet another forty years.
- The Ming Dynasty had been ruling China for only 67 years.
- The Tsars would not rule Russia for yet another 132 years.
In my humble opinion, Pope Benedict is doing the right thing by resigning, especially if he doesn’t believe that he’s up to the task of steering the church through the troubled waters that it now finds itself navigating. Hopefully, the next pope will be capable of elevating the church and its outward image, back to the levels seen during John Paul II’s papacy. It’s a daunting proposition, that will require a pontiff with a very unique skill set.