By Terry Mattingly
JOPLIN, Mo. —
In the spring of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI stopped in Aquila, Italy, to pray at the shrine of St. Celestine V.
The pope left his pallium -- a wool garment that resembles a yoke, symbolizing bonds between a shepherd and his flock -- on this medieval pope's tomb. Then, 15 months later, he visited a cathedral outside Rome to pray before the relics, once again, of St. Celestine V.
Few noticed Benedict's actions. So who was this saint? He was the elderly priest who, "somewhat against his will," was elected pope in 1294, observed theologian Scott Hahn of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Before long, Pope Celestine V issued a decree allowing occupants of St. Peter's throne to step down -- a step he then proceeded to take.
Looking back, it appears Benedict's visit to shrines honoring this particular pope were "probably more than pious acts," noted Hahn, on his Facebook page. "More likely, they were profound and symbolic gestures of a very personal nature, which conveyed a message that a pope can hardly deliver any other way." This was a message consistent with the 86-year-old pope's stunning announcement this week -- days before the start of Lent -- that he would end his eight-year papacy on Feb. 28. Although it has been seven centuries since the voluntary resignation of a pope, this option remains in canon law and was affirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1975 and the Pope John Paul II in 1996.
Benedict said he was thinking about the future of the papacy, not the past: "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."
The Vatican press office noted that these words were consistent with his thoughts in the 2010 book, "Light of the World." While it would be wrong to flee in times of trouble, Benedict said: "When a pope realizes clearly that he is no longer physically, mentally and spiritually capable of carrying out his role, then there is legally the possibility, and also the obligation, to resign."
Vatican leaders are planning for the election of a pope by Easter, thus creating a whirlwind of activity. Reactions, so far, have included:
Strategically, the key is that Benedict's out-of-the-blue decision will do much to prevent the months or even years of political maneuvering that precede papal elections, wrote Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answer. It also helps that Benedict did not act in response to calls for his retirement, such as the campaign aimed at John Paul II.
At the same time, he noted, "advancing medical technology means increasingly long life spans with a longer period of frail health. ... Unless we get really wizard regenerative medical technology really soon, we're likely to have more popes in that kind of situation, and thus there are likely to be more resignations in the future."
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.tmatt.net.