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Pope Benedict XVI isn’t the first: All the Popes who have retired

Pope Benedict XVI made headlines seven years ago when he announced he’d be stepping down from the coveted title of Pope of the Catholic Church. His decision shocked Catholics around the world, as he was the first pope to resign in over 600 years. The decision, though, isn’t as rare as one might think.

Pope Benedict XVI is only one of many popes who have stepped down from their holy position throughout history. The history of the position in the Catholic church is rich & dense, stretching all the way back to 30 A.D., long before a pope’s resignation could become a one-line phrase dominating Twitter.

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was rather smooth and simple: he gave the reason of his advanced age and stepped down. To further smooth this retirement, Benedict continues to sit alongside his successor Pope Francis as emeritus pope: Pope Benedict XVI looks and acts the part, and his stance is respected in decisions, but the man holds no official power in the Vatican any longer.

Pope Benedict XVI made for an easy passing of the torch, but history gives us plenty examples of much messier retirements. Many popes were coerced to step down against their will, and it’s hard to decipher sincere resignations from forced ones. Here are some of the more remarkable papal resignations.

Benedict IX reports the first papal resignation to have been Benedict IX (the OG retiring Benedict), who became pope way back in 1032 A.D.

Becoming the big man in his early twenties, Benedict IX may have lacked the wisdom of the elderly popes we’ve come to know and love; he was extremely unpopular and resigned only after his godfather Gregory VI convinced him to step down for a large sum, so that Gregory himself could become the new pope.

Gregory VI

Messiness begets messiness, one must think, as Gregory VI’s reign hardly challenged the quality of Benedict IX’s. It wasn’t long before he was found out for nefariously jacking the pope seat for money. The head of the Holy Roman Empire convinced him to resign in 1046, a year after Benedict IX stepped down.

Celestine V

Historically, it was never a good look to retire from being the pope. Seventy-seven year-old Pope Celestine V used his power to make it “permissible” to step down from the office during his reign.

A week later, he did just that in 1294. Most of his work as pope was undone by his successor, Boniface VIII, who jailed Celestine until his death at age eighty-one.

Gregory XII

Gregory XII is the last pope before Pope Benedict XVI to retire, doing so in 1415. Like many popes before him, he was convinced to do so. However, Gregory XII stepped down in order to end the Western Schism that kept the Catholic church from unifying.

Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation in 2013 may not have been the first pope retirement the world has seen, but it was the first in quite some time. Furthermore, it may be the first resignation that was accepted despite being neither used as a political action nor a product of coercion.

Future resignations

The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to step down may have made a historic shift in the way retirement is viewed in the Catholic Church. Current Pope Francis has indicated having a short run as pope, leaving many wondering if he too, will retire when he feels aged out of the position.

Whether Pope Francis decides to go the way of Pope Benedict XVI and retire before death or stay on indefinitely like so many popes before him is hard to say. In 2014, Francis claimed to be planning a mere five-year run in the coveted seat, which would have him stepping down in January 2021.

If Pope Francis does step down, it might not make the headlines Pope Benedict XVI did, as the gap between resignations would fall flat by about 595 years.

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  • Greetings,

    On this day of prayer it’s interesting to read this information about Pope Benedict I’m glad that he is doing good and feeling well. I hope that Pope Francis continues his work for a while and certainly keep up with Pope Benedict.

    December 29, 2020

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