Pope Benedict XVI announced on Monday, February 11, that he plans to resign at the end of the month. He delivered the news in several different languages. In his statement he said his "strength of mind and body” had "deteriorated […] to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me." The news stunned many.
First pope to resign in six centuries
Pope Benedict XVI is not the first pope to resign, but he is the first pope to do so in modern times. While the Code of Canon Law allows a pope to resign, for the most part, the church expects the pope to continue in office on his death.
"If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone" (Canon 332, No. 2).
Pope Benedict's resignation is not the first in the history of the church. A handful of others have resigned over the years. The first to do so was Pope St. Pontian who resigned on September 28, 235 after he was exiled to Sardinia and condemned to work in the salt mines. He was martyred about a year later. Other popes who resigned include Pope St. Silverius who was forcibly deposed because he did not approve Empress Theodora's nominations of heretics for bishops. Pope St. Martin experienced a similar situation when he opposed the Byzantine Emperor's efforts to promote heresy and appoint heretical bishops. He was deposed, exiled, and died a martyr.
Pope Benedict IX holds the unusual notoriety of being pope three different times. His position originally resulted from a bribe from his father who used manipulation and threats to get his son named pope. Sylvester III replaced him, but only served as pope for 22 days. Pope Benedict regrouped and deposed Sylvester, however he resigned 21 days later when he was offered a large amount of money and a woman in marriage. The deal fell through, and Benedict reclaimed his office. He became pope the last time in November of 1047 after Clement II died from poison, some think possibly by agents of Benedict. Eventually Pope Benedict retired to the Abbey of Grottaferrata and officially resigned as pope.
Pope St. Celestine V was elected pope in 1294 at the age of 84 and resigned five months later. His successor had the elderly pope imprisoned so he couldn't try to reclaim the position. Pope Gregory XII was elected pope during turbulent times in the church when two anti-popes also were in place. In an effort to help heal the church, Pope Gregory resigned at the Council of Constance as the two anti-popes were also removed from office. He was the last pope to resign until now.
Pope's last day February 28
When a pope dies, his death is followed by a nine-day mourning period before the selection process for a new pope begins. With Pope Benedict's resignation announcement, the conclave's process can begin the process to choose the pope's replacement. It is believed a new pope will be in place by Easter.
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine Ministry." Pope Benedict XVI (February 11, 2013)