17 February 2013

LIFE: The Golden Years

CHIAVARI, Italy – One of the big news stories this week was Pope Benedict XVI announcing his retirement and moving his residency to Castel Gandolfo, in the Castelli Romani about 15 miles south of Rome. Who knew popes could retire?
 Pope Benedict XVI Resigns (AP L'Ossavatore Romana)
There have been other popes who have resigned their duties over the long history of the Catholic Church, although you can’t really say they retired as Pope Benedict XVI is doing, at least not in the sense of the word as we use it today. But then the Catholic Church of the past is not the Catholic Church we know today either.

The first pope to resign was Pope St. Pontian. He had been elected as the Successor of St. Peter on July 21, 230. His resignation came about after he was arrested and jailed in a dispute over church policy with the Roman Emperor Maximinus I Thrax. He was exiled to Sardinia and condemned to work in the salt mines there until his death.  In order to not deprive the church of a leader, he resigned and a new pope, St. Anteros, was elected. 

The Vatican
Then there was Pope St. Silverius, who was consecrated pope on June 1, 536. He didn’t exactly retire either. His departure was also a forcible removal ordered by Theodora, the Empress of the Byzantine Empire. Pope St. Silverius and the Empress had severe disagreements over her nomination of heretics for bishops, and for that he was exiled to the island of Palmaria where he remained a prisoner until his death on November 11, 537.

Pope St. Martin I, who was consecrated pope in July 649, found himself in a similar situation. He also opposed the Byzantine Emperor's attempt to appoint heretical bishops and was kidnapped, taken to Constantinople, deposed, condemned and exiled. He died in the Crimea on September 16, 656, of ill-treatment and neglect.  In all fairness, the ill-treatment and neglect was probably a common, pervasive condition at the prison more than specifically aimed at Pope St. Martin I.

Inside the Vatican
The most salacious story is that of Benedict IX. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Benedict IX was about 18 or 19 years old in the year 1032 when his father bought the Papal chair for him. Other than his connection with a powerful Roman family, Benedict IX had little to offer as a religious leader. He was described by St. Peter Damian as one who ‘feasted on immorality’, and he was called ‘a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest’ by the historian Ferdinand Gregorvius. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia calls the first openly gay pope ‘a disgrace to the Chair of Peter.’  

It was Benedict’s godfather, the priest John Gratian, who paid Benedict to resign the papacy in 1045. Gratian then stepped into the vacancy becoming Pope Gregory VI.  Benedict claimed he had resigned in order to marry, but a year later, when the marriage never happened, he returned to Rome and reclaimed his right to the papal throne.

 A Papal Encounter of the Spiritual Kind
For the next few months, there were two popes in Rome, each claiming the right to rule the Catholic Church.  The frustrated clergy urged the German Emperor Henry III, of the Holy Roman Empire, to invade Rome and remove both of them.

When Henry III arrived, Gregory VI was convinced to stand before a council of fellow church leaders. The bishops urged him to resign for bribing his way into office. Even though he claimed he had done nothing wrong in buying the papacy, the bishops managed to convince Gregory VI to step down. 

Pope Benedict XVI
Perhaps the story closest to that of the current Pope Benedict XVI, is the story of Pope Celestine V. Celestine V was a serious, Sicilian who decided, after only being in office for five months, that he wanted to exercise his right to resign. The year was 1294. Writing of himself in the third person, he said he was resigning out of: “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life.”

Pope Benedict XVI was elected Pope at the age of 78 and is the oldest person to have been elected Pope since Pope Clement XII (1730–40).  Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger's papacy began in 2005 and will end on February 28, 2013.

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