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Derek Coleman: Papal resignation has fascinating history

Mar. 01, 2013 @ 12:15 PM

Two subjects that I try to avoid in these articles are politics and religion. Politics is taboo because my experience is with the British form of the sport, which is vastly different to the American version and you, dear readers, almost certainly know far more about how it’s played over here than I do.

Religion is very personal, everyone has their own beliefs and way of worshipping, I know I do, and although they might not be the same as yours, I would not dream of trying to influence or change them.

Having said that, I am going to talk about religion this week, or rather I want to talk about news coming out of one religion. I am, of course, talking about the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI resigned the Papacy on health grounds. This is huge news in the Catholic world. The last Pope to resign did so in the year 1415 — nearly 600 years ago — and every subsequent one has died in the office.

Papal resignation is a very rare occurrence these days, but not so much in the earlier years of the church. There have probably been nine previous holders of the office who have given it up. Four of them occurred in the first thousand years of the church. Two of these were chased out by the Romans and resigned, one was accused of paganism and the reason for the fourth is lost in the mists of time.

In the year 964, Pope Benedict V was in office for just one month before being ousted by the Emperor Otto and resigning. Otto then put his own candidate in the Papal chair. About a hundred years later, in the mid 11th century, Pope Benedict IX was said to be only about 20 years old when elected through family influence. The history is a little obscure, but he appears to have led quite a dissolute life. He served three terms as Pope between 1036 and 1048, resigning twice and actually selling the office once. The man who bribed him to resign the Papacy, Gregory VI, also later resigned.

There were two further resignations before today, both made for the good of the church. Celestine V, later Saint Celestine, resigned after less than six months in office because he doubted his own competence for the Papacy and did not want the church controlled by secular influences. Gregory XII resigned in 1415 to end the Western Schism which had seen a period when there were two popes reigning at the same time, one in Rome and the other in Avignon, in France.

Now that the Papacy is vacant, the senior members of the church must meet in conclave to elect the next person to hold the office. Church rules say that the Cardinals meet in the Vatican 15 days after the death or resignation of the Pope and then hold a series of secret ballots to elect his successor. There is speculation, however, that this election may take place sooner. The 15-day wait is in order to allow Cardinals from all over the world to travel to Rome after the unexpected death of a Pope. In this case the date of Benedict XVI’s resignation was already known and international travel is much faster than it used to be. With the Holy week of Easter at the end of March and the tradition that each new Pope takes office on a Sunday, there may well be a move to ensure his successor is in place sooner.

So what effect will the election of a new Pope have on America and American Catholics? Very little, I suspect. Statistics show that whilst adhering to the basics of the religion, the majority of Catholics, at least in the United States, go their own way when it comes to many of the church’s edicts.

Will the new Pope be an American? No one knows. The election of Joseph Alois Ratzinger to be Pope Benedict XVI was something of a surprise, yet came after only three votes. Sometimes these conclaves of cardinals go for several days without agreeing on a successor. As I write this, there is speculation that the new Pope may come out of Africa or Asia, but we will have to wait and see like the rest of the world.

We also do not know what name the new Pope will use. Tradition says that the man elected gets to choose his own name and there have been many variants although Peter has not been used since St. Peter was the first Pope.

We cannot influence the conclave of cardinals in their decision but perhaps, when we are making our own devotions this weekend, we could add a little word to our prayers for God to guide their deliberations and to find a worthy man to fill the office, one who will be good not only for Catholics but for all religions.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.