Looking Back

Popes who resigned

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Bishops turn in a courtesy resignation when they hit their 75th birthday. Cardinals aged 80 and beyond cannot participate in a conclave to elect a new pope. So what is so shocking about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI?

Here is a man who took charge of his life, accepted his limitations, and made a decision for the good of the institution rather than himself. All popes in recent memory did not step down from office until they died, but there are a number of popes in history who resigned or abdicated or sold their office. Pontian (pope in 23-235) was exiled to the mines of Sardinia by Emperor Maximinus Thrax and abdicated on Sept. 28, 235. Saint Marcellinus (296-304), Liberius (352-366), and John XVIII (1004-1009) all resigned.

Benedict IX was the most colorful of all; he reigned as pope not once but thrice. His first term was in 1032-1044, when his father arranged that he become pope in his teens. He was a homosexual, and history records the orgies he organized in his palace. Expelled from Rome, he was replaced by Sylvester III, but in April-May 1045 he returned and sold the papacy to Gregory VI. He served a last term in 1047-1048. Definitely a pope that the Church would want to forget, but his life would make a great teleserye.

The resigned pope that most people seem to remember before Benedict XVI was Celestine V aka Peter Celestine, a monk and hermit who founded the religious order that now bears his name. “Peter Celestine” was one of the three names I submitted to my abbot before I was clothed as a Benedictine novice in 1993. Having the chance to choose a new name rather than the awful ones imposed on me by my parents at baptism and in the birth registry was one of the attractions of monastic life. One not only gets a new name as one enters a new life, one also discards one’s birthday and celebrates the feast of one’s saint.

My three choices were: Ignacio Maria (because I had spent most of my schooling, more than half my life, under the Jesuits), Wilfrido Maria (for a saintly Spanish abbot in Manila, Wilfrido Rojo, who lived the last years of his life in England), and Peter Celestine (a name I saw on a marble slab in the cloister as PETRVS CELESTINVS GUSI, the name of the Spanish abbot who built the beautiful abbey buildings in Manila). Peter Celestine came to mind when I heard that Benedict XVI had resigned as pope because when Celestine V resigned in 1294 after five months (July-December 1294) on the Chair of Peter, he retired to a cell in a palace where he spent the rest of his days praying, reading, copying and binding books. Now that is a life I would look forward to.

It is not well-known that after the 2009 earthquake that damaged the church of Aquila in Italy, Benedict XVI visited and was shown the remains of Celestine V in a glass case. After venerating the holy relic, the Pope made a gesture that only now in retrospect becomes relevant: He took off his pallium, the white narrow band with black crosses that forms a “Y” on vestments, and offered it on a glass casket as a present. It is significant that this same pallium was that given him when he became Bishop of Rome or Pope in 2005. Was he, that early, already thinking of early retirement? Having assisted John Paul II in the latter’s last years, Benedict XVI perhaps realized that resignation was the best option.

A pallium is an archbishop’s symbol of authority, and in the olden times an archbishop could not exercise his authority until he had received the pallium from Rome. When I was a student in London, I attended services in Westminster Cathedral and was assigned once or twice to carry the mitre of Basil Cardinal Hume. After Mass I would take his pallium, fold it neatly, and tuck it into a special silver box that went into the treasury. I handled it with reverence and awe, knowing its history. Pallia are woven from the wool of white lambs shorn by Trappist monks on the feast of St. Agnes and presented by the nuns of the convent of St. Agnes. Then the wool is sent to the Benedictine nuns of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere to be woven into pallia.

Everything a pope wears, from his white skullcap to his especially made white or red Ferragamo shoes, has a historical and symbolic meaning. On his inauguration, Benedict XVI wore a pallium wider than those of his predecessor John Paul II and metropolitan archbishops. Later he changed his pallium to have red, instead of black, crosses, to be distinct from archbishops. What seemed like simple design changes then now gain significance in the wake of his resignation.

After his resignation, Celestine V was happy to live the life of a hermit. But his successor did not know what to do with another living anointed pope, so he had Celestine “imprisoned” until his death. No such medieval fate awaits Benedict XVI, who can return to his books and read.

Who will the new pope be? That we do not know. This early, TV reports are speculating on a non-European nonwhite pope from Africa, Latin America, or Asia, where the flock is thickest. But you must remember that more than half of the cardinals are from Europe. The Philippines has three cardinals, but two are over 80, leaving us with Cardinal Luis Tagle as a possible papabile, or papal candidate. As they say, Abangan ang susunod na kabanata.

(Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu)

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