Meet the Popes Who Thought About Resigning--But Didn't

Long-time Vatican expert's new book contains a fascinating look at the recent popes who almost resigned but didn't. You'll be surprised how many there are!
Long-time Vatican expert's new book contains a fascinating look at the recent popes who almost resigned but didn't. You'll be surprised how many there are! (photo: Register Files)

Benedict XVI's resignation may have been the first papal resignation in hundreds of years, but it didn't come completely out of the blue.

He'd already indicated that he had been thinking about the subject of resignation.

What is less well known is that other recent popes had been thinking about it, too.

A lot of recent popes.

Here's the story . . .


An Increasingly Heavy Cross

For some time, I had been aware that several recent popes, including Pius XII, Paul VI, and John Paul II had thought about resignation--or even made contingency plans for it.

But recently I was reading Andrea Tornielli's fascinating new book Francis: Pope of a New World, and he includes a passage discussing the thoughts and plans of recent popes regarding resignation.

He reports:

The topic of resignation came to light again in the past century.

Advances in medicine have considerably extended life, and from Pius IX on, the job itself of the successor of Peter has been burdened with responsibilities and functions to the point of making it more and more difficult to carry out for a person who is not fully in possession of physical and intellectual strength.

He then lists the particular popes and what is known about their thoughts on resignation . . .


Pius XI

The first 20th century pope that Tornielli discusses was Pius XI, who was pope in the years prior to World War II. He doesn't have a lot to say, but he reports:

It seems that Pius XI (known in the world as Achille Ratti), who was pope from 1922 to 1939, had already considered the possibility of this step in the final years of his life.

It is certain, on the other hand, that his successor, Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, did so twice.


Pius XII

This is one that has been known for some time. In particular: Pius XII had contingency plans drawn up for his resignation in case he was taken prisoner by the Nazis, which he thought was a real possibility, given his firm opposition to Hitler.

Tornielli reports:

Elected on the eve of the outbreak of World War II, the Pope came to know about a plan of Adolf Hitler, who wanted to kidnap him and deport him outside of Italy.

He informed his close entourage that in the event of a concrete threat of deportation by the Germans, they would “carry off Cardinal Pacelli, and not the pope” as Cardinal Domenico Tardini testified, who at that time was his close collaborator in the Secretariat of State.

Pius XII wrote a letter of resignation and had it given for safekeeping to Cardinal Manuel Cereieira Gonçalves, the Patriarch of Lisbon, who had been created cardinal together with Pacelli in the consistory of December 1929.

The choice was not accidental: Portugal was a neutral country, not involved in the war. In the event of the deportation of the Pope, the cardinals would be free to gather there and elect a new pontiff.

At the end of the war, that document was destroyed.

But Pius XII was also just one step away from resigning several years later, in 1954, when he was struck by illness. However, he recovered, and the idea was abandoned.

The idea of resignation occurred also to his successor, Blessed John XXIII.



There is also reason to think that John XXIII, already an elderly man when elected, thought about resigning after Vatican II began and his health was declining.

Tornielli reports:

His secretary, Monsignor Loris Capovilla revealed:

“Engraved distinctly in my memory is the conversation with Bishop Alfredo Cavagna, confessor and counselor of John XXIII, one Friday in Lent of 1963, in the afternoon, the contents of which I did not immediately commit to writing:

“His Excellency emerged from the Pope’s room after having heard his confession and spoken with him at length about the schemas of the Council.

“He summoned me to the parlor and without preamble, perhaps supposing that I knew something, told me that the Pope cannot resign. . . .

“It is obvious that in the course of the conversation, John XXIII, considering the state of his health and foreseeing the tremendous work involved in conducting the Council, must have declared that he was willing to renounce the papacy.”


Paul VI

Paul VI, who presided over the latter part of Vatican II, introduced a change in Church law so that cardinals who were eighty years old would no longer be burdened with having to elect a new pope.

It's also known that he thought about resigning at that age himself--and that he thought of resigning if he got into a problematic health situation.

Tornielli reports:

The possibility was once again under consideration by Paul VI.

“He was preoccupied”, his confessor, Jesuit Father Dezza, related, “with the thought of a sickness that would render him unable to work, because of the harm to the Church that would result from it”.

Pope Montini thought seriously, and several times, about the possibility of resigning.

He hastened to write a two-page letter, in his own hand, in which he asked the cardinals to convoke the conclave in the event of his prolonged inability and of his incapacity to submit his resignation in a timely fashion.

Moreover, Paul VI seriously considered the possibility of leaving the pontificate upon completing his eightieth year—after having set that age limit for cardinals to participate in a conclave.

It seems that the decision had already been made, and the mini-consistory of 1977 (in which Cardinal Giovanni Benelli received the purple hat together with Ratzinger) is to be understood in this light.

Then, however, he was dissuaded and decided to remain at his post. In recent times, the problem arose with the long and debilitating illness of John Paul II.


John Paul II

John Paul II's thoughts about resigning are also well-known.

Tornielli reports:

Blessed Karol Wojtyla talked with his co-workers several times about the possibility of resigning.

The Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz, a canonist and an Opus Dei priest, revealed that he had been consulted at the end of Wojtyla’s pontificate on the question of resignation.

And in his book, he reprints the personal note that he himself wrote, on December 17, 2004, “after a conversation” with Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, at that time the Pope’s secretary and now Cardinal of Kraków.

The passage reads:

As for the possibility of resignation for reasons of health, I wrote in that note—and now it seems to me opportune to make it known, as an example of the heroic obedience and prudence of John Paul II:

“He [Fr. Stanislaw] limited himself to commenting that the Pope—who personally is quite detached from the position—lived in abandonment to the will of God. He trusts in Divine Providence.

“Moreover, he fears creating a dangerous precedent for his successors, because someone could be left exposed to maneuvers and subtle pressures on the part of those who wanted to depose him.”


Benedict XVI

And so we arrive at the reign of Benedict XVI, who actually did resign.

He had already dropped hints, such as when he laid the pallium from his own installation Mass on the tomb of St. Celestine V, the pope who resigned who situation was the closest to Benedict XVI's.

He also discussed the possibility in an interview.

Tornielli reports:

Joseph Ratzinger had meditated on his decision for quite some time. He himself had spoken about the subject in 2010, in answering a question from a friend, the journalist Peter Seewald:

“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.”

Ratzinger had lived close to the Calvary of his predecessor, whose strength had been sapped by illness, and had already made it known then that he would not want that experience to be repeated. He would never want to be “managed” by those around him.

Apparently, the subject had even been on his mind before he was elected to the papacy:

In October 2002, while still a cardinal, he had received from Archbishop Pasquale Macchi a copy of the letter with which Paul VI gave instructions to the cardinals in case of his prolonged incapacity, asking them to convoke the conclave.

“This is something very wise that every pope ought to do”, Ratzinger had commented when he looked over that photocopy.

But the hypothetical case considered by Paul VI foresaw serious incapacity, and the end of Wojtyla’s reign a disabling illness like Parkinson’s disease. Nothing of the sort, in contrast, happened to Benedict XVI, who has arthritis and a weak heart.


Benedict's Decision in Context

One of the striking things about the context in which Benedict XVI made his decision was the fact that virtually all of the popes for the last century seem to have thought about resigning.

The only ones not covered in Tornielli's account are the first two 20th century popes--Pius X and Benedict XV--and John Paul I, who reigned only 33 days.

All of the others are reported to have thought seriously about resigning due to health or other concerns.

Given that, as well as the increasing ages of the popes and the increasing demands on their office, it could seem that it was only a matter of time before a pope actually did resign.

Incidentally, Tornielli's book is a fascinating read.

Click here to pre-order your copy of Francis: Pope of a New World.

Or click here to get the Kindle version right now.



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