Today, Pope Benedict XVI made the decision to step down. For Roman Catholics, this is a shocking surprise. For historians, it is a moment in which we “watch history happen” – a very overused phrase, but one which means that we witness an unusual event which will be discussed long after we’re no longer here.
Benedict is not the first Pope to step down. Perhaps the most famous is Celestine V, a former hermit who was named as Pope against his will, kidnapped, and sent to Rome. He was 79 at the time. He served for five months, stepping down in 1294 in order to head back to his cave in Abruzzi. Sadly, he didn’t make it very far. The next Pope in line kidnapped him and imprisoned him. He died in prison, either by disease or he was murdered.
Before Celestine, who would probably prefer to be remembered as Peter Marrone, there was Pope John VIII, who stepped down in 1009 for reasons unknown. John battled the power of the Ottonian Emperor Henry II over the issues of church and state – the idea of a non-Church controlled Empire was beginning to heat up at the time.
Gregory XII was the last Pope to step down. In 1415, the Church was faced with two Popes: one in Rome, and another in Avignon, and then a THIRD Pope was named to reconcile the schism between the two Popes. The Council of Constance reconciled the schism, naming a NEW Pope, Martin V.
Pope Benedict XVI is not the first Pope to step down, but in nearly 2,000 years, he is Number 4, and perhaps the first to step down for being too tired to continue. Let’s keep watching this story to see how it unfolds!