People are shocked at the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI although it is not unprecedented; its just a rare occurence in the history of the Catholic Church. In other words, it hasn’t happened in nearly six-hundred years.
Here’s a little history of it according to IBTimes:
“Pope Gregory XII resigned in an effort to put an end to the so-called ‘Western Schism’ in 1415 – a complex web of affairs in which two others — the Avignon Pope Benedict XIII and the Antipope John XXIII – also claimed the papacy.
The schism erupted in 1378 one year after Gregory XI was named the Pope in Rome, ending the sixty-seven year reign of the ‘Avignon Papacy’ during which time seven pontiffs ruled from that city in southern France. (Gregory XI was actually named Pope in 1370, as the last of the seven ‘Avignon popes,’ but he did not move to Rome until seven year later).
Following the death of Gregory XI in March 1378, under pressure from Romans to elect a Roman leader of the church, the cardinals named Pope Urban VI who was from Naples. Urban VI quickly fell out of favor, leading to the election of a ‘rival pope,’ Pope Clement VII, in September of that year, who re-established the papacy in Avignon – meaning the Catholic Church now had a pope and an ‘anti-pope,’ thereby dividing the European continent.
After Clement VII and Urban VI died, the schism continued through their respective successors, Pope Boniface IX (who became the ‘Roman’ pope in 1389) and Benedict XIII (the Avignon antipope who was crowned in 1394).
Upon the death of Boniface in 1404, some hopes for a resolution to the schism emerged when the cardinals in Rome offered not to name a new pope immediately if Benedict would resign and give up the Avignon faction’s claims on the papacy. When Benedict and his representatives refused, the Roman Cardinals named Pope Innocent VII as the new pope in Rome. Upon Innocent VII’s death in 1406, Gregory XII was named his successor (while Benedict XIII still ruled in Avignon).
The dispute deteriorated into further complications in 1409 when a church council in Pisa elected yet another anti-pope, Alexander V, who lasted about a year, until he was succeeded by John XXIII. The issue was not resolved until 1414 when the Council of Constance pressured anti-pope John XXIII to resign and excommunicated the Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII. Gregory XII agreed to resign the following year, succeeded by Pope Martin V (although some entities refused to recognize him and some antipopes continued to reign). However, Gregory XII’s resignation was not, strictly speaking, voluntary since it involved various behind-the-scenes machinations and intrigues, complicated by the Avignon and Pisa claimants.
Thus, perhaps the last truly voluntary resignation by a Pope occurred decades earlier, in 1294, when Pope Celestine V quit after serving only five months. Succeeding Pope Nicholas IV in July 1294, perhaps Celestine V’s most notable achievement was issuing a decree which granted the right of a pope to abdicate (a step he himself took in December of that year). Explaining his wish to resign, Celestine V said he was motivated by “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, [and] his longing for the tranquility of his former life”.”
Whoah Nellie! In other words, such a move is rare and controversial and complex. See the original piece on this on IBTimes. Also, BBC reported that a resignation by the papacy almost occurred during the chaos of World War II. Historians speculate that Pope Pius XII drew up a document indicating that if he were seized by the Nazis, he should be considered as having “resigned” from his post and a successor should be selected.
While the Church may be shocked, crikey, is announcing that you no longer have the mental and physical strength to carry on at his age such a crime? Steve Jobs had to do it as he was pushing boundaries that were beyond what his body could handle. Others have done the same, so why can’t the Pope be honest? According to Reuters, “Church officials tried to relay a climate of calm confidence in the running of a 2,000-year-old institution, but the decision could lead to uncertainty in a Church already besieged by scandal for covering up sexual abuse of children by priests.”
Also according to the same source, the Pope had apparently maintained that “he never wanted to be pope, was an uncompromising conservative on social and theological issues, fighting what he regarded as the increasing secularization of society.”
While the Church is in shock and no doubt, countless of devout catholics around the world, it begs the question: do western catholics even care? Consider the stats: “according to the Center for Applied Research In the Apostolate (CARA), an affiliate of Georgetown University in Washington DC, the number of priests in the U.S. has declined from almost 59,000 in 1965 to just below 39,000 last year, while the number of parishes has remained about the same. Nearly 3,400 parishes do not have a resident priest now.”
The same source talked about another trend, related to the catholic church decline, is that while the Church was established and will remain in Europe, its future growth has become increasingly dependent on the developing world, where the majority of new believers are arising in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Could the next Pope come from Africa?
Photo credit: people.com.