Written by RAPHAEL TENTHANI
Last week I said in my reflections on the unprecedented resignation of Pope Benedict XVI: “The last – and I think the first – pope to resign was in 1415, some 600 years back, when Pope Gregory XII threw in the towel”.
It was brought to my attention that that might not exactly be correct. Pope Benedict XVI is actually the ninth pontiff to throw in the towel.
And, thanks to Monsignor Joseph Kimu of Radio Maria in Mangochi, here is a little church history:
Church law does allow for a pope to resign if he is of sound mind and not forced out by fear or fraud. Under Canon law, if a pope chooses to resign, no one is allowed to tell him he cannot.
According to the Vatican, John Paul II had secret letters - in 1989 and in 1994 - offering to resign if he became too incapacitated to fulfil his ministry.
Pope Benedict XVI says in Light of the World, a collection of interviews with a German journalist, that a pope has the right to resign if he "clearly realises that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office.” Under some circumstances, the outgoing pontiff says, resignation may also be “an obligation".
But if it is simply a staggering burden to be pope, Benedict says, "One must stand fast and endure the situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say someone else should do it."
The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in the 15th Century. But the most infamous resignation may have been that of Pope Celesine V who quit in 1294. "Dante placed him in hell for it," says political scientist and Vatican expert Rev. Thomas Reese.
Popes who have resigned — often during times of political turmoil:
Pontian – 230 - 235: allegedly resigned after being exiled to the mines of Sardinia.
Marcellinus – 296 – 304: abdicated or was deposed after complying with Roman Emperor Diocletian's order to offer sacrifice to pagan gods.
Martin I – 649 – 655: exiled by Emperor Constans II to Crimea.
Benedict V – 964: elected after the assassination of the prior pope, he was pushed out a month later, by the emperor who favoured a different candidate.
Benedict IX – 1032 – 1045: resigned after selling the papacy to his godfather Gregory VI.
Gregory VI – 1045 – 1046: deposed by Henry III for simony (selling church pardons and offices.
Celestine V – 1294: a hermit, elected at age of 80 and overwhelmed by the office and therefore resigned. He was imprisoned by his successor.
Gregory XII – 1406 – 1415: resigned to help end the Great Western Schism when there were multiple rival popes.