VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has shaken up the modern world by giving new life to a papal precedent not seen in 600 years: freely abdicating the Chair of St. Peter.

Pope Benedict, 85, has made headlines as the first pope in the era of mass communication to resign. Nearly eight years after the death of his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, whose 26-year pontificate ranks as the third-longest papal reign (including St. Peter’s), Benedict is following in the footsteps of a handful of other popes in the Church’s 2,000-year history.

“The Holy Father is a realist,” said Cardinal Adam Maida, the archbishop-emeritus of Detroit. “He loves the Church very much and is thinking of what is in her best interest right now.”

Cardinal Maida, 83, joined the conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger as Pope upon the death of John Paul II.

“In one way, I look at this as very sad; but, in another way, I see this as a very positive move. He is making the very best judgment for himself and God’s people,” Cardinal Maida said.

At least two Roman popes have freely resigned the papacy: St. Celestine V in 1294 and Gregory XII in 1415. Celestine wrote the original legislation declaring the pope could resign his office and make way for his successor. Gregory XII stepped down to make way for the Council of Constance to elect a unity candidate, Martin V, to resolve the rival papal claims in the Great Schism.

A few other popes before Celestine V resigned their claims to the Chair of St. Peter under pressure or due to exile. Pope Benedict IX has the distinction of resigning three times from the papacy between 1032 and 1048. He also achieved notoriety as the youngest pope (at 20 years old), as the only pope to sell his papal office, and for a reputation for gross immorality before finally retiring to a monastic life of prayer and penance, according to one account.


Vigorous Leadership Needed

“I don’t think there is any pope who has resigned because of declining health,” said Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, editor of Ignatius Press. “But the Church needs more vigorous leadership, and Benedict understands that.”

Father Fessio, a former student and longtime friend of Benedict's, said modern Western medicine has allowed individuals to live longer, but the modern world has also given the Pope a more widespread Church that demands “more media activity, more travel, more engagements, commitments and obligations.”

The Pope’s doctors have requested that he no longer take trans-Atlantic flights, effectively cutting the Pope off from half a hemisphere, where hundreds of millions of Catholics live. The Pope’s health would also prevent him from attending this July’s World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“The Pope really wants us to see that the successor of Peter must be physically and mentally ready to respond to pastoral issues in the times we are living in,” said Alan Schreck, theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Schreck, an expert on the Second Vatican Council, said Benedict’s decision to pass the papal pallium on to a younger man should be cast in light of John Paul II’s work to “recover the authentic meaning of the Council.” Benedict promulgated the current Year of Faith, asking the faithful to read not only the Catechism, but also the Council documents. Schreck said Benedict’s resignation fits with the Council’s missionary ideal of a “Pilgrim Pope” who spreads the Gospel to all countries and strengthens the Church’s identity there.

“The personal presence of the Pope in other parts of the world is very powerful,” Schreck said. “It’s highly effective, showing the catholicity of the Church, and it also makes the Pope’s universal concerns very tangible.”


Risks of Resigning

The decision to resign carries some risk for a future pope, and Benedict’s precedent could theoretically expose future popes to political pressure to step down.

But Mike Aquilina, a prolific author of books on the Catholic Church’s history, religious teachings and practices, said Benedict is also helping future popes live out “profound Christian witness” without feeling in the shadow of John Paul.

“He’s giving future popes the freedom to live their pontificates faithfully in the way they see fit,” Aquilina said. “He’s showing them how to discern God’s will without feeling they have to do it the way Blessed John Paul II did.”

Father Fessio said that Benedict’s resignation statement makes a nod to John Paul II’s prayer and suffering “as a real witness and precedent that can be accepted.”

But John Paul was a physically fit pope for most of his reign, making 104 trips to foreign nations, the last being to Lourdes, France, in August 2004.

“With Benedict, this health decline could go on for 10 years, where he gets weaker and weaker,” Father Fessio said.

Rocco Palmo, a Vatican observer and editor of Whispers in the Loggia, said Benedict’s resignation is a “logical extension” of Paul VI’s decision to set the age limit for cardinal electors at 80 and Blessed John Paul II’s decision to keep a letter of resignation in case he ever became incapacitated. 

Resignation may have been on Benedict’s mind since 2008, Palmo said, when the Pope made the historic decision to accept Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach’s resignation as superior general of the Society of Jesus. 

“No superior general had ever resigned or retired,” Palmo said. The Jesuits’ superior general is nicknamed “the Black Pope” and expected to die in office, Palmo said, so the society’s smooth transition became Benedict’s “dry run” for a transfer of papal power to his successor.


Conclave Preparations

Once the clock strikes 8pm in Rome on Feb. 28, the Church will no longer have a pope, and the cardinals will have 15-20 days to gather and begin the conclave.

However, Palmo said the cardinals will not have the traditional nine days of mourning, so the conclave could begin by March 10. The cardinals have to be in their dioceses during Holy Week, and so they will have to complete the papal election and the new pope’s Sunday inauguration Mass before the Church celebrates Palm Sunday on March 24.

“The last thing you want is the crowd screaming, ‘Crucify him; crucify him’ at the Pope’s inauguration Mass,” Palmo said.

Cardinal Maida said the 2005 conclave was an awe-inspiring and humbling event. He recalled having a “very strange feeling” as he processed into the Sistine Chapel with fellow cardinal electors.

“You are aware of this moment, where somehow you are God’s instrument to pick the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ — and there is no greater judgment I could make in my life,” the cardinal said.

“When you walk into the Sistine Chapel, and you see Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, you don’t want to make a bad decision — you do the best you can.”

What is unclear is the role Benedict, or Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, will play in the Church’s life once a new pope is elected. Gregory XII died before the election of Martin V, two years after his abdication, and St. Celestine lived out a life of monastic prayer, but died under house arrest imposed by his successor, Boniface VIII.

“Benedict might continue to influence the Church by prayer or continued writing,” Schreck said. “But, by doing this, he’s telling the world that he’ll no longer be center stage.”

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.