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Popes have resigned in the past, and more than once, despite popular mythology to the contrary, at least including:
- Pope St. Pontian in 235
- Pope Silverius in 537
- Pope John XVIII in 1009
- Pope Benedict IX in 1045
- Pope Gregory VI in 1046
- Pope Celestine V in 1294
- Pope Gregory XII in 1415
Several others are not entirely clear whether it was resignation or deposition, including at least Pope Marcellinus in 308 and Pope Liberius in 366.
Plus there were others who are now considered antipopes who resigned, but at the time may not have been so clear who was the legitimate bishop of Rome. Some popes were deposed, others excommunicated. What I remember from history courses was that about 10% did not serve until death (and not all who did died of natural causes).
Modern popes have considered resignation as an option, most famously:
- Pius VII in 1804 prepared a letter of resignation, to be put into effect if he was captured and imprisoned
- Pius XII in 1943, for the same reason
- Paul VI considered retiring at the age of 75, in 1972, to conform to the law that asked the same of all other bishops
- John Paul II said in 1979 that he was open to the same idea, and it is said that he had a conditional document prepared as early as 1989, and again in 2000.
- Benedict XVI told the cardinals in the days after he was elected that he would resign if necessary, and addressed it again in 2010 in his interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World
Back in 2000, ecclesiologist Fr. Richard McBrien penned an article for the Tablet, asking the question of resignation with respect to the pontificate of John Paul II. His book, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to Benedict XVI, is one of a handful of good, contemporary resources on the topic.
We need to think more broadly than the bishop of Rome. We have seen other patriarchs and heads of churches resign, both within the Catholic Church, and in broader Christendom. All of them in positions that, in virtually all cases, were also considered normally held until death.
Consider just recently:
- The Catholic Coptic Patriarch Antonios I Naguib resigned in January 2013, at age 77.
- The Catholic Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly resigned in December 2012, at age 85.
- The Catholic Maronite Patrairch Nasrallah P. Sfeir resigned in March 2011, at age 90.
- Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury resigned, effective December 2012, at age 62.
- Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America resigned in July 2012, at age 53.
So, while it has been almost 600 years since the last bishop of Rome willingly retired, we can and will get used to the idea. It takes remarkable integrity to lead by such strong example.
Some helpful reminders from the Vatican Press Office:
- Pope Benedict XVI has given his resignation freely, in accordance with Canon 332 §2 of the Code of Canon Law.
- Pope Benedict XVI will not take part in the Conclave for the election of his successor.
- Pope Benedict XVI will move to the Papal residence in Castel Gandolfo when his resignation shall become effective.
- When renovation work on the monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican is complete, the Holy Father will move there for a period of prayer and reflection.
Pope Benedict XVI on Monday said he plans on resigning the papal office on February 28th. Below please find his announcement.
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.
However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.
From the Vatican, 10 February 2013
BENEDICTUS PP XVI