As we were finalizing this issue of MICHAEL, a piece of news from the Vatican came on February 11, 2013 like a thunderbolt, and within a few minutes, the news burst like a bombshell all over the world, leaving not only Catholics, but the whole world, astounded: at the end of a meeting with cardinals in the Vatican (gathered in a consistory for the announcement of future canonizations), Pope Benedict XVI read a text in Latin, announcing his resignation as Pope and Bishop of Rome as from February 28, 2013, thus becoming the first pope to resign in 600 years. Here is the official translation of the of Pope’s declaration:
“Dear Brothers, I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church.
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.
“However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
“For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on April 19, 2005, in such a way, that as from February 28, 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
“Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.”
After the reading by Benedict XVI of his declaration, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, spoke to the Pope on behalf of the other cardinals:
“Holiness, beloved and venerated Successor of Peter, your emotional message has reverberated in this hall like lightning from a clear blue sky. We heard you with a sense of disorientation, almost of total incredulity. In your words, we see the great affection that you have always had for the Holy Church of God, for this Church that you have loved so much... But your mission will continue. You said that you will always be close to us in witness and in prayer. The stars in heaven will always continue to shine, just as the star of your Pontificate will continue to shine among us.”
According to the spokesperson for the Vatican, Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Church should have a new Pope by Easter. On the evening of February 28, Benedict XVI will retire to Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the popes, and a few weeks after, when the preparations are done, he will spend the rest of his life in prayer at the Mother Ecclesiae monastery (built under John Paul II for cloistered nuns, but presently empty). This monastery is located in the Vatican gardens, just a few hundred feet away from St. Peter’s Basilica. He will be accompanied by the four consecrated lay people who presently take care of Pope Benedict’s daily life, and by his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein.
|On April 28, 2009, during his visit to Aquila, a region in Italy that had just been struck by an earthquake, Pope Benedict XVI went to the Basilica of Collemaggio, to venerate the remains of Pope St. Celestine V, and left on the tomb the pallium he had received at the beginning of his own pontificate, in April, 2005.|
Even though no mortal can tell the Pope to resign, the current Code of Canon Law (the internal ecclesiastical law governing the Catholic Church), promulgated by John Paul II in 1983, allows the Sovereign Pontiff to renounce his office by his own will. Having no superior, no one above him except God Himself, the Pope does not have to hand his resignation letter to anyone. The only requirement for this resignation to be valid is to be freely made, as it is written in Article 332 - §2 of the Code of Canon Law:
“Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.”
|Benedict XVI announced his resignation on February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, and the day consecrated to the sick since 1997|
The last time a Pope resigned was more than 600 years ago: in 1415, Pope Gregory XII resigned to put an end to the Great Western Schism — a split within the Catholic Church from 1378 to 1417 which saw two rival popes claiming to be in office: one based in Avignon, France; the other in Rome. (In 1410, a third one who even elected pope in Pisa!) Before renouncing the papacy, Gregory XII convoked the Council of Constance and authorized it to elect his successor, and the Church came back to only one Pope in Rome, Martin V.
Before Gregory XII there is another very special case of papal resignation, that of Pope Celestine V: in 1294, the Church had been without a Pope for more than two years, the cardinals being unable to reach a consensus and elect a new one. A very holy hermit, named Pietro di Morrone, sent them a letter warning them that divine vengeance would fall upon them if they did not quickly elect a pope. The dean of the College of Cardinals cried out, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I elect brother Pietro di Morrone”, and the other cardinals promptly ratified his desperate decision. At first, Pietro refused the papacy, but was finally persuaded by a deputation of cardinals, and was crowned Pope at the age of 79, taking the name Celestine V. (See picture below.)
Pietro had been elected because of his personal holiness, sort of a unity candidate. But once he got there, being a hermit, not used to the ways of the Roman Curia, he found himself somewhat unsuited to the task. So five months later he issued a solemn decree declaring it permissible for a Pope to resign, and then did so himself. Celestine returned to the monastic life, died 10 months later, and was declared a saint in 1313.
Benedict XVI had already evoked the possibility for a Pope to resign in the book Light of the World — an interview with German journalist Peter Seewald — published in 2010. Seewald asked the first question in relation to difficult situations weighing on his Pontificate, and if the Pope had ever thought of resigning. His answer was: “When the danger is great, one cannot flee, and that is why certainly, now is not the time to resign. (The reference had to with the sex-abuse scandals). It is precisely at times like this that one must resist and overcome the difficulty. This is what I think: One can resign at a time of serenity, or when one can no longer do the job, but one cannot leave at the moment of danger and say, ‘Let somebody else take care of it’.
The second question of Seewald: “Therefore is there a conceivable situation which you might consider opportune for a Pope to resign?” And the Pope’s answer was: “Yes, when a Pope comes to a clear awareness that he is no longer physically, mentally and spiritually able to carry out the responsibility entrusted to him, then he has the right, and even in some circumstances, the duty to resign”.
Given the great love of the faithful for Pope Benedict, it is natural that many feel sadness and even disorientation at the news of his resignation. But we can be confident that the Holy Father made this decision after having prayed a lot, and that he has done what he is convinced is best for the Church. Benedict XVI has chosen to humble himself in an act of self-sacrifice so that the Holy Spirit will give the Church a Vicar of Christ who can meet the challenges of the Papacy as Benedict XVI has done so courageously.
Benedict XVI does not quit his office to flee difficulties but, as he simply wrote in his declaration, because he no longer has the required physical health to do what is required from a Pope today, especially the apostolic journeys overseas. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, reported the day after Benedict’s resignation that it was since March 2012, back from his apostolic journey in Mexico and Cuba, that the Holy Father had decided to resign, because the doctors then told him not to make similar travels overseas in the future.
Let us thank Benedict XVI for all that he has done during these years on the See of Peter — his encyclicals, homilies, brilliant meditations, apostolic journeys — and let us pray for him, as he will himself continue to pray for the Church.
During all his pontificate, Benedict XVI will have born testimony to the truth with courage and humility, without ever being ashamed of his Master, Jesus Christ, without ever fleeing from the wolves, always facing difficulties and challenges with courage and faith, reminding the faithful that there are truths that are non-negotiable, in front of today’s society where the dictatorship of relativism prevails, where anything goes.
Most glorious God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
we your flock await the new Shepherd
you have prepared to lead your people.
Many dark valleys may be ahead, yet our
trust in your Divine Providence makes
us long for a new springtime in the Church.
In every age you guide and safeguard
the faithful by sending forth a Holy Father
to take up the keys of St. Peter and
govern that which you have founded.
By the fire of your spirit, pour forth
Divine Wisdom and inspire those
Cardinals who will elect the next Pope.
May they fulfill your perfect Will
and raise up a good and holy man
to shepherd us by word and example.
Under his leadership may your Church
boldly proclaim the joy of our faith,
the reason for our hope, and the charity
that comes through Truth.
May your mighty hand protect the Church
through whatever storms lay ahead
and lead us safely home
to the vision of your glory. Amen.