The Common Good

What Happens When the 'See of Peter' is Vacant?

After nearly eight years since being named to the chair of Peter, Pope Benedict XVI announced this morning that he is resigning at the end of February.

VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI leaving after delivering his traditional Christmas 'Urbi et Orbi' blessing. VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

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If you live in the post-Modern, post-Christendom uber-hip world, you might not understand the full weight of this morning's announcement.
 
A pope hasn't "resigned" in 600 years.
 
" ... in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is."
As a cradle Catholic who loves the church enough to fight with her when she fails to live up to her Gospel call, the words "the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant" are words that strike a dark loneliness in my stomach and soul.
 
The shoes of the Fisherman must be filled. The bark of Christ must have a helmsman (or woman). The Holy Mother Church must have the one who groans in birth for the new Spirit loosed on the earth.
 
It's not necessarily that I think a pope shouldn't resign — though it's a very hazardous and worldly decision. It's just that it happens so rarely. It calls us up short before the arc of Christian history.
 
It's only happened about 10 times in 2,000 years — so you'll forgive our shock.
 
In 92AD, Clement I was pressured by Epiphanius to give up the pontificate for the sake of peace. He took it back again a few years later. Pope Pontian resigned after being captured and sent to the mines of Sardinia in 230AD. One pope resigned from exile in Crimea. Another after being forced to sacrifice to pagan gods. Another after selling the papacy to his godfather. Another resigned at the request of the Council of Constance to help end the Western Schism. And Pope Celestine V, in 1294, resigned because he was 80 when he was elected and was called to be a hermit.
 
So what are we to make of this shocking announcement by 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI? Which of the following are likely true?
  1. He never really wanted the job and hoped to retire after the death of John Paul II, but took it up anyway and it turned out to be one of the hardest 8 years in recent Church history.
     
  2. He's frail, weak, extremely tired; like Jesus, he's fallen the second time and needs someone else to take up the cross.
     
  3. There are younger men who he feels can better respond to the Church and world's contemporary needs.
     
  4. The pedophilia scandal continues to be a mark of shame on the Catholic church and while his heart is broken over it he does not have the courage or calling to change the system.
     
  5. The Catholic Church is on the verge of a major shift to reclaim the full spirit of the Second Vatican Council and the pressure within has become such that he needs to step out of the way.
I would say that "all of the above" are true. And in mid-March, when cardinals from around the globe arrive in Rome, the world will see for the first time in living memory a new pope elected while the previous pope looks on.
 
This will be a critical time for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And as we enter into Lent, we can say with Pope Benedict "I ask pardon for all my defects... [and] entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ."
 
I hope the whole world will join in prayer for the Pope in these last weeks of his papacy--and pray for our whole church as the Holy Spirit pushes, prods, and blows the bark of Peter toward a new shore.

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning? (available at store.sojo.net), is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor.
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