Even for someone as avowedly non-religious as I am, the events in Rome over the last few days have been hugely interesting. It’s not hard to understand why. Benedict XVI is the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415, and the first to resign freely since 1294. Think about that for a moment, the last time a Pope resigned, Henry V was leading the English into battle at Agincourt. Purely for its rarity it is a matter of great historical moment.
But there are other reasons to be interested.
Benedict XVI, even by the admission of his most loyal followers, could not be described as an easy Pope to love. There were reasons for this of course. The principal one was the Pope he succeeded. John Paul II, for all of his (especially in later years) doctrinal conservatism, was a charismatic man. And he had served a long term, begun when he was rigorous and keen to travel in his ministry. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was an altogether different proposition: quieter, and 78 years old when elected, he had a reputation as theological scholar of considerable talent. A more different Pontiff is difficult to imagine, short of a Borgia.
As Pope he has been at the head of the Roman Catholic church at a time when it has been beset by tribulation and controversy. To the consternation of some, he has continued in the same conservative vein as his predecessor. In his resignation he cites his failing health and age as factors. It seems more than likely that such thoughts have not been far away from his mind for some time. In April 2009, he visited the tomb of Pope Saint Celestine V in Aquila, Italy and left his pallium, a symbol of his authority, on the tomb as a gift. Then, in July 2010, Benedict went to visit and pray in the cathedral of Sulmona, near Rome, where the relics of this same Pope, Celestine V are kept. Why he should do this might seem puzzling, but becomes a little clearer once you start to dig slightly deeper.
Celestine V was elected Pope in July 1294, when he was 79 years old. He was a reluctant holder of the role, so much so that he attempted first not to accept it, then to flee to return to his life as a monk. He remained as Pope for only 5 months. His final decree was to institute an instrument to permit the resignation of a Pope, which he then duly exercised, citing, “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life.” Benedict’s own resignation speech certainly carries echoes of Celestine’s. He is said to be the last Pope to resign freely, and not under duress or force. One final point of interest to note that, as a monk, he had originally been a member of the Order of St Benedict.
It is not too far beyond the realm of possibility to believe that Joseph Ratinger was also a reluctant Pope, and envisaged the time when he might relinquish his office. So much so that even his regnal name was chosen as a coded reference to his predecessor. Perhaps. However, whatever criticisms we may have of him, it is true that much can be gleaned from the manner in which people who hold power go about divesting themselves of it. And Joseph Ratzinger has divested himself of his with a sense of rather restrained dignity.