If you have access to any sort of news outlet today, you must have heard the news: Pope Benedict XVI has announced his papal resignation effective February 28. This is certainly shocking news, given the fact that the last pontiff to exercise this authority was Pope Gregory XII who resigned 598 years ago to put an end to the Western Schism. As the day progressed more news came out: the Holy Father grappled with this question for quite some time, he isn’t going to participate in conclave to elect his successor, and he is going to move to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo for awhile and then possibly to a cloistered monastery for prayer and reflection.
Saint Corbinian’s Bear
One particularly interesting piece of commentary from The Catholic World Report notes Pope Benedict’s affinity for the symbol of Saint Corbinian’s Bear. I always find it interesting to explore the inspiration for the great thinkers of the Church, so I was interested to find out more. Saint Corbinian was an 8th-century bishop who carries a legend wherein his horse is killed by a bear. The saint rebukes the bear and enlists him to carry his burden back to Rome. Pope Benedict has used the symbol of the bear on his heraldry starting when he was Archbishop of Munich. His autobiography quotes:
The bear with the pack, which replaced the horse or, more probably, St. Corbinian’s mule, becoming, against his will, his pack animal, was that not, and is it not an image of what I should be and of what I am?
At the end of the legend, the saint lets the bear go free… seems like an appropriate symbol today. I strongly recommend reading the rest of the commentary that I linked above, it is quite thought provoking.
As the day progressed, most of my coworkers stopped by to ask if I had heard the news and ask questions. Here are a few:
Can the Pope even do that?
Yes, he sure can. The Code of Canon Law 332 §2 states:
If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.
So all he has to do is freely resign through an official manifest. There is no process of acceptance, what he says goes.
What happens next?
From the sound if it, Conclave will begin on February 28. If it follows normal procedures after a pope’s death, voting begins 13-15 days after Conclave begins. This being a rather rare situation they may begin Conclave much quicker since no official mourning period is required, but it’s anyone’s guess at this point. I’m sure we’ll know more as the 28th approaches and we get more details about what is planned. The Conclave process will apply in this situation, and there’s no direct cause for alarm… this isn’t uncharted territory, it’s just rather antique territory.
What’s the Pope going to be called once he steps down?
That one is a little tricky, since it has been so long since this has happened. Surely he will return to being known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I have heard some news agencies report that some Vatican officials are beginning to use the title Bishop Emeritus of Rome but again… I’m sure this will become more clear as the end of the month approaches. I strongly suspect that mainstream media will continue to call him Pope Benedict in some regard, mostly because it’s easier.
What’s going to happen to the Pope’s recently minted Twitter account?
This one actually made me laugh, despite it being a sobering reflection of the times we live in. I haven’t heard one way or another whether Pope Benedict will continue to maintain his Twitter account after his reign as Supreme Pontiff ends, or if it will be turned over to his successor. I do hope that the next pope embraces new media with the same zeal as Pope Benedict, because it was really interesting to get insights into the thoughts of the pope 140 characters at a time.
What do I think?
This was the most popular question, as if I was going to come up with some sort of poetic or crushing insight. The truth is, I am sad. I think that Pope Benedict is an enlightened teacher and a truly spectacular scholar. He was a champion for the old guard of orthodoxy and traditionalism, both of which ate sorely lacking in today’s society. His background and story are extremely interesting, as is his reluctance to progress through the priestly ranks. In the end he heeded the admonishment of his predecessor Pope John Paul II: “Be not afraid!” and took the visible and demanding role that he is leaving behind at the end of the month. I find that very inspirational, that he would sacrifice so much to be the Vicar of Christ on Earth.
I am also concerned for his health. I suspect that any reason that would cause the Pope to resign just before Lent and during the Year of Faith that he himself instituted must be a grave one. I noticed that he seemed more frail in the last few years when viewed on TV, but I chalked it up to his advanced age and the demands of the job. In the end, I hope that he receives some peace and is allowed to quietly return to a life of peaceful prayer, and that he continues to release books to help the rest of us along in our faith journey.
At the same time, I am excited for the future. This is only the second Conclave that I have been alive for and it is always a mysterious spectacle. I am hopeful for another pontiff in the same mould of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict: big personalities with a great love of Christ and a great capacity for explaining the Truth that is within them.