Renunciation of our Holy Father

Renunciation of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI

Last Monday at 5:15am, I received a text on my cell phone from my sister, Ariane, who is a producer for ABC News saying: “The Pope resigned.” I have to say that my first response was “You sure not a hoax?” Most of us were very surprised, and even somewhat saddened by the Holy Father’s announcement. And frankly, the word “resignation” doesn’t really decribe what happened. Over the life of the Church, there have been at least seven Popes who have done what Pope Benedict did, and it’s not really a “resignation,” because there is no one to whom to “resign” the office. As Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, the Holy Father “renounces” or “abdicates” his office, something that has been done at least seven times in the history of the Church for various reasons. Unlike the priesthood, which is a sacrament, the Bishop of Rome is an office. And the Canon Law of the Church in the 1983 Code clearly envisions the renunciation of the office: “Can. 332 §2 Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.” Although the word “resign” is the English translation, the controlling Latin text uses the verb “renuntiare,” which is more properly translated “renounce.” Since the Pope has Supreme Authority in the Church by virtue of holding the hereditary office given by Jesus to St. Peter, his leaving his office does not have to be accepted by anyone. He freely lays it down.

The biggest question people have been asking me is “why?” And to that I would point to past resignations. In the early days of the Pope Pontian (230-235 AD) was exiled to Sardinia, and renounced the Papacy so that the Church would not be leaderless. Later that century, Pope Marcellinus (296-304 AD) was forced to worship pagan gods by burning incense to them, which was a de facto renunciation. Other popes were forced out of office, or renounced because of political reasons, or so that there would not be multiple popes. The closest circumstance we have to the current one is Pope Celestine V (1294 AD), who was eighty when he was elected pope against his wishes. He tried to govern, but due his age, he was unable to do so effectively. So he renounced the office so that another could lead effectively, and he became a hermit. In a sense, that is what Pope Benedict XVI is doing. He recognizes that his age and health have made him unable to effectively govern the Church in a rapidly changing world, and he doesn’t want to be a mere “figurehead” pope while others are governing the Church in his name. By humbly renouncing his office, he has opened the door to electing a younger pope who can govern with more youth and vigor. In a sense, Pope Benedict’s renunciation is a great act of humility. We know that he will continue to pray for us and the Church, and we will miss him, but the Holy Spirit will provide for us. Viva il Papa!