Being a pope hasn’t always been as easy as it might appear, as evinced by the resignation Monday of Pope Benedict XVI.
Through the centuries, various popes have been up to their triregnums with intrigues, wars, treacheries and incredibly complicated political situations.
As many as 13 are alleged to have been murdered. Steven VI and Benedict VI were strangled. The notorious John XII was said to be killed by a righteously jealous husband.
The most recent pope to give up the job was Gregory XII in 1415. His resignation came amid a very messy situation called the Great Western Schism in which two other men — called antipopes — competed with Gregory for the right to lead the Catholic Church. Gregory’s magnanimous resignation helped the church clean up its affairs, leading to the election of Martin V in 1417 and formally ending the Schism.
We find Benedict XVI’s resignation at age 85 no less magnanimous, as he broke with the tradition of hanging on to the papacy until death because he just didn’t feel up to the job.
“Strength of mind and body are necessary,” said the pontiff, “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.”
Benedict was 78, after all, when he took on the job after the death of John Paul II.
Benedict inherited a Vatican rife with accusations of financial corruption and money-laundering, a festering child-abuse situation and a growing secularism that threatened the future of the church.
We will leave it to the historians to judge how effective this pope has been, but it is undeniable that he has made strides to clear up the Vatican’s financial problems, and has made a good-faith effort to deal with children being abused by priests and others. Even his strongest supporters, however, recognize there will still be much work to be done on those issues by the next pope.