Just how big a deal is this? The last time the leader of the Roman Catholic Church resigned his office was almost exactly 600 years ago in 1415, and that was to end the Western Schism and reunify the Pontificate. No such dramatics are in play today, as Benedict XVI will step down on February 28th for reasons of health:
Full text of Pope’s declaration
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 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 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.
From the Vatican, 10 February 2013
BENEDICTUS PP XVI
Again, just to give some historical perspective, the last time this happened, Gutenberg hadn’t yet invented the printing press. What does it mean for the Catholic Church today, with 1.2 billion faithful and the state of the Vatican in the balance? Administratively, not much. The Vatican and the Church operate without a Pope when one dies, and the same mechanisms will carry out the day-to-day functions of both the Church and the state until a successor is chosen by the College of Cardinals. If anything, that will proceed in a more orderly fashion, with the head start provided by Benedict XVI’s notice.
Spiritually, of course, it’s another matter entirely. Benedict XVI is one of the Church’s greatest living theologians, and has been a highly-respected leader of faith in his pontificate. It’s impossible not to compare him to his predecessor Blessed John Paul, whose pontificate lasted for decades and who had a tremendous impact on the world and governed the Church through a renewal of faith, but that comparison will probably be a little unfair to Benedict XVI. The manner of his leaving, though, begs for that kind of comparison. Blessed John Paul took the traditional route of holding the office to his death despite suffering from Parkinson’s, a disease that ravaged his body but left his mind clear. Benedict XVI makes explicit mention of concerns over the state of his “mind and body” and a deterioration in one or both that has created an “incapacity,” which leaves the impression that one of the most brilliant minds in the Church may be dimming, and that Benedict XVI has decided to forego the difficulties this would cause the Church and allow another to take his place. That itself is a significant sacrifice, and perhaps an important act of humility.
Needless to say, Benedict XVI will be in our prayers. In my life, I’ve only really known two Popes, and I’ve only been physically close to this one: when I traveled to Rome for the beatification of Blessed John Paul two years ago. Benedict XVI conducted the long ceremony and exhibited strength, joy, and faith. While I didn’t get to see him up close — I was actually just outside the wall and watched on a TV screen, surrounded by an estimated 3 million pilgrims — it was literally a life-changing experience, in ways that are still unfolding for me.
Benedict XVI helped guide the Church after the death of his larger-than-life predecessor, finishing his work and beginning his own. That transition was jarring: how do you follow the pontificate of a saint? Benedict XVI managed to do so with joy, faith, and determination, and perhaps it’s fitting that after having provided such a smooth transition to the post-JPII era of the Church, he’s been tasked with providing a smoother transition to his successor. We will pray for Benedict XVI in retirement, and for his successor to face the challenges of the next era.
Update: In case anyone wonders, canon law within the Roman Catholic Church does allow for the resignation of a Pope. “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” I assume that the announcement from the Vatican means that the resignation has been accepted by the cardinals.
Update II: Commenter Greek Fire captured my first reaction to this news pretty accurately:
If you go back to the ’05 conclave, when they elected a man older than JP 2, we thought we’d be lucky to get five years. We got 8, and they were good ones.
Pope Benedict XVI is the pope of Christian unity.