The going of the Pope

15 February 2013

BenedictThe manner of Benedict’s going – by retirement/resignation/abdication, call it what you will – has created a lot of comment.  But if Benedict had gone in the normal way – death- that would have been just as newsworthy.  The going of a Pope of course leads to a new Pope through what might be called the world’s most exclusive election, as Barney Swartz describes it in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald:

…where 120 elderly men employing ancient rituals amid great ceremony set the course for …the 1.2 billion people who call themselves Catholic.


The coronation of Pope Celestine V

The last Pope to retire/resign/abdicate was Gregory XII,  who stepped down in 1405  in order to resolve a conflict that saw three men claiming to be Pope.

Many reports have referred to Benedict praying at the tomb of Celestine V, who resigned in 1294 after less than 6 months on the papal throne, as a portent of Benedict’s own intentions.  Celestine was a reluctant Pope, having accepted the role under a certain degree of duress, when the College of Cardinals (of which he was not a member) remained deadlocked for two years to elect a successor to Nicholas IV. While his reign was short, Celestine left an enduring legacy.  He reinstituted the papal conclave, in which the electors are locked in seclusion cum clave—Latin for “with a key”—and not permitted to leave until a new Bishop of Rome has been elected, to avoid the circumstances that attended his own election.

Although several Popes had resigned before him, Celestine was the first to formalise  the resignation process – and promptly quit.  Celestine appears to have been the second or third oldest man elected Pope (at 79 years of age), while Benedict is the sixth oldest (at 78 years).

Benedict’s resignation  creates a few protocol issues.  To put such issues beyond doubt in 1294, Celestine’s successor Boniface VIII imprisoned Celestine, who probably wouldn’t have minded too much, being of an ascetic and solitary nature.   Benedict will retire to his summer home in Castel Gandolfo, in the hills outside Rome, before moving to the Mater Ecclesiae convent, a plain, four-story structure built 21 years ago to serve as an international place “for contemplative life within the walls of Vatican City.”

Does he retain the name Benedict and some sort of honorific (for example, “His Holiness the former Pope, Benedict”) or does he revert to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger?   One assumes that on his death he will be accorded the full papal ceremonials (though he won’t be rapped three times on the forehead with a silver hammer, a practice that was discontinued at the death of Paul VI – and no, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer doesn’t reference that ritual).

The former Pope will be able to move freely, according to a church spokesman, though it is “premature” to say how involved he will be in day-to-day activities — like saying Mass — at the Vatican.

As Celestine established that a Pope can resign/retire, Benedict might establish that a Pope should retire/resign at a certain point.  In 2010,  Benedict said that if a pope “clearly realized that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of carrying out the duties of his office,” he would have “the right, and under some circumstances also an obligation, to resign.”  The Code of Canon Law provides generally for retirement of priest and bishops at age 75 (see Father Bob McGuire), at 80 cardinals can no longer particiapte in the papal conclave, so maybe Benedict has set a retirement age for Popes.


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