VATICAN CITY— On Feb. 11, Pope Benedict made it public that he will step down from his role as head of the Catholic Church, raising a number of questions about how the process of resignation works.
Only two other popes have resigned their post voluntarily in the history of the Church, with the last one being Gregory XII in 1415.
But, in retrospect, the idea was perhaps not so distant from the mind of Benedict XVI.
The first clear hint of such a move being on the mind of Pope Benedict came in his 2010 interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald.
That series of questions from Seewald later became the book Light of the World.
In that work, the Pope responded to a question about whether a Pope could resign: “Yes. If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”
The first Pope to resign in the history of the Church was St. Celestine V, who was elected to office in December 1294 after a conclave that lasted two years and three months.
He was known as a holy priest who dedicated himself to a life of prayer as a hermit. However, as Pope, his administration of the Church was poor, and the Roman Curia fell into disarray.
In July 1294, he resigned from his office, becoming the first Successor of Peter to do so. After his resignation, St. Celestine returned to a life of prayer, despite being imprisoned by his successor.
The current Code of Canon Law, the regulations that govern the life of the Church, now makes it possible for a Pope to leave his office.
Canon 332, Paragraph 2 says: “Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is to be required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists at a Feb. 11 Vatican press conference that he himself was not shocked by the news, especially once he recalled the Pope’s response in Light of the World.
At that point, Father Lombardi said he knew the Pope was fully aware he had the right to resign.
Pope Benedict will officially retire on Feb. 28, 2013, at 8pm, at which point the seat of Peter will be considered vacant.
He will then travel to the papal summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo, which is about 15 miles southeast of Rome.
Once renovations are complete on Mater Ecclesia Monastery inside the Vatican, the former Pope will move there for a period of prayer and rest.
The preparations for the Conclave of Cardinals to elect a new Pope will begin as soon as Benedict XVI retires on Feb. 28.
During a conclave, all the cardinals below the age of 80 come to Rome to pray, consider and vote for who the next Pope will be, all behind closed doors.
Father Lombardi expects that there will be a new Pope by Easter.