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Pope lives ‘modern’ gesture with grace

The resignation of Benedict XVI may well have been an unexpected "modern" gesture for the leader of a 2,000-year-old institution, but the way in which the 264th pontiff lived his last weeks in office were full of Gospel humility millennia-old.  

The outrage and dismay that Benedict's resignation may have sparked has remained relatively minor within the Church. In his February 11 announcement, he said his "strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry." Still, some voices could not help but state that the majority of popes had ruled until their deaths.  

For most of the Church's history, a pope has served from the moment of his election until his death. A papal resignation due to infirmity and old age was not necessary to consider before since life expectancy was far shorter in centuries past. In fact, only three popes have lived into their 80s-Paul VI (d. 1978), John Paul II (d. 2005) and Benedict XVI. 

The current Code of Canon Law provides for the possibility of a papal resignation in Canon 332, but does not address infirmity or age. It simply 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." 

The fact remains that papal resignations are rare, and that nearly 600 years have passed since the last one is proof of that.

While the stories behind some papal resignations are questionable (historical records are insufficient to conclude whether some popes who left office before their deaths resigned or were deposed), the first definite and incontestable resignation was of Benedict IX in 1045.

Gregory VI, who succeeded Benedict IX, resigned in 1046. 

Celestine V resigned in 1294, after five months in office, and lived as a hermit and then as his successor's prisoner until his death. 

Gregory XII resigned in 1425, after nine years, in order to end the Western Schism.  

Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, the first to cite reasons of age.  

The latter's resignation came into effect, fully and completely, February 28 at 8 p.m. Overall, the news was well-received, with Benedict thanking the faithful a day earlier for having accepted his decision "with patience and respect." 

On his last day in office and in a spirit of humility, characteristic of these last weeks of his pontificate, Benedict pledged his faithfulness and service to the next pope.

"Among you, among the College of Cardinals, there is also the future pope, to whom, here today, I already promise my unconditional reverence and obedience," he said to 144-members of the College of Cardinals, gathered at the Vatican, February 28. Only 115 cardinals are expected to vote in the conclave. 

His final tweet on @Pontifex was one of gratitude: "Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives." 

And, at his final public appearance at Castel Gandolfo, before retiring for the night, he recommitted to a life of simplicity in faith: "As of 8 p.m., I will no longer be the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. I will simply be a pilgrim who is beginning the last part of his pilgrimage on earth."

"But with my heart, my love, my prayer, with all my interior strength, I will work for the common good and the good of the Church and all humanity," he continued. "Let us move forward together with the Lord for the good of the Church and the world." 


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