On Monday, February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation effective February 28th. Citing ill health and a lack of strength to fulfill his duties, the Pope, 85 years of age, becomes the first to resign the office in 600 years. Pope Benedict was elected on April 19th, 2005 after the death of beloved Pope John Paul II.
Papal resignations are rare; only four out of the 266 popes in history have stepped down.
Pope Marcellinus was elected in the year 294 just as intolerance of Christians spread. Eventually, Marcellinus bowed to Emperor Diocletian, offered incense to pagan gods, and handed over scriptures for destruction. Marcellinus was deposed in 304.
Pope Benedict IX, related to two previous popes, became pope in 1033 somewhere between the age of twelve and twenty. Benedict regarded his papacy as a family heirloom, tired of the office and sold it to his godfather. Benedict IX was deposed in 1048 and ex-communicated.
Celestine V, elected in 1294, was the first pope to resign. Overwhelmed by the demands of the office, Celestine admitted to lacking the world and government knowledge necessary to fulfill his duties and stepped down in 1296. He was incarcerated for resigning. On the occasion of Celestine's 800th birthday in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI prayed at his tomb and declared 2009 the Celestine year.
Pope Gregory XII, who assumed the papacy in 1406, stepped down in 1415 to heal a schism within the church. Until now, Gregory XII was the last pope in history to resign.
So what happens next?
In March, eligible members of the College of Cardinals will travel to Rome for a conclave to elect a new pope for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, who will wait with bated breath for white smoke to rise from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. (Black smoke, created by mixing the cardinals' ballots with straw, signals a failed vote.) The cardinals' decision, Catholics believe, will be guided by the Holy Spirit.
The white smoke/black smoke, secretive decision process is the stuff of fairy-tales to me. Was the Holy Spirit on vacation when popes Marcellinus, Benedict IX, Gregory XII, and many other tainted pontiffs were elected? I am a Catholic, but not naïve enough to think the conclave will be anything other than Vatican politics. Will God be present? Absolutely. God is everywhere, but He is often ignored.
The Catholic Church is on shaky ground. According to pewforum.org, Catholicism has experienced the greatest loss in membership as a result of changing religious affiliation. For those who are keeping “score,” pewforum reports Protestants outnumber Catholics by a wide margin (55% Protestant vs 21% Catholic). I'll go out on a limb here and say the majority of Catholics, myself included, respect the Pope but do not agree with him on many, many things.
Pope Benedict's courage in resigning is admirable; his decision must have been truly difficult. Let's hope and pray he lives the rest of his life in renewed health and personal peace. Let's also hope white smoke appears from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel signaling the election of a less traditional pope, one who will renew and revitalize the Catholic Church and bring it forward into the 21st century.