Courtesy of MCT
The year was 1415.
Catholicism was divided. The world – which was far more limited than the one we know today – was torn.
The Catholic Church was nearing the apex of a devastating rift, one that ripped laypeople in two and later three directions, known as the Great Western Schism.
According to Catholic tradition, popes have been the head of the Catholic world since the Apostle Peter in biblical times, but in the late 1300s, when the Schism began and several popes led their own following, that tradition and belief was threatened.
Pope Gregory VII saw a solution in 1415. To save the legitimacy of the papacy – and arguably the religion – Gregory resigned as pope.
A couple years later, the Schism ended. The legitimacy of a singular pope was returned.
That was the last time a pope resigned. That was 600 years ago.
Monday, Pope Benedict XVI broke the resignation dry spell. Citing old age, ill health and waning energy, he said in a statement, originally issued in Latin, that he no longer felt he could be the head of the Catholic Church and carry out God’s will like he should.
Benedict is 85 and has been pope since 2005.
His 89-year-old brother – after he somewhat comically attested to Benedict’s declining energy – claimed he knew of the pope’s plans for months.
But the news slapped the rest of the world in the face.
I heard of the resignation before I even got out of bed at 8 a.m. Monday. I’m probably a bit of an anomaly, being the editor of a newspaper and feeling the need to check my emails before I even get up, but I was stunned. Even if I wasn’t Catholic, I think I would’ve been taken by surprise.
We had a story in Tuesday’s paper about how the OSU community was reacting to the news, and some people weren’t happy about it. They felt like Benedict had quit, like he had given up on the world. I sensed a profound feeling of disappointment, almost of abandonment, in some of those voices.
Looking at the history of papal resignations, it’s easy to feel that way. The last time it happened, the resignation was necessary to reunite the church. It was radical, somewhat of a salvation.
That wasn’t the case for Benedict. There’s always some sort of Catholic controversy going on, but the church isn’t splitting. Benedict was known for his conservative ways, for strictly following the canons, or rules and norms, of the church, and resigning as pope definitely wasn’t normal.
But I don’t feel abandoned by him at all. In fact, I don’t blame him for resigning.
It’s hard to lead a spiritually healthy life, let alone lead one billion people in healthy spiritual lives. It’s especially hard, I’m sure, when you’re pushing 86.
The main source of disappointment, I think, came from putting the pope on a pedestal. He is almost considered superhuman, more blessed and holy than the rest of us – all popes are. This is a belief that allows much of the Catholic Church to function. I don’t agree with everything in the Catholic canons, or with many of Benedict’s more conservative beliefs, yet I am reverent of the pope. But I also remember that he is only human. He has the strength that faith gives holding him up, but he also gets tired like the rest of us. I think it was very revolutionary for Benedict to realize his earthly limits, and I hope people don’t feel too abandoned or lost.
Comparing Benedict’s resignation with Gregory’s, it seems disappointing. But before Gregory, there was another pope that resigned after five months in the papacy because he preferred a monk’s life of seclusion. Just because it’s been centuries doesn’t mean there has to be some sort of dire situation for the pope to resign.
Ultimately, it comes down to the pope and God. Obviously not everyone believes that, but it’s what I believe and recent events have shown it’s what Benedict believes too.
Six-hundred years ago, Gregory resigned to reunite a broken church. After a papacy marred with sexual abuse scandals and other outrages, maybe Benedict’s resignation will at least seal up some cracks.