The last time it happened? A look back to 1415

DETROIT — The last two papal resignations looked nothing like the current one, says a Church historian for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Rather than being age-related or the product of a world with rapidly changing spiritual needs, the last two popes to resign both did so under clouds of controversy.

Of course, those were both more than half a millennium ago, said Fr. Eric Weber, professor of Church history at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

“The last one was Gregory XII in 1415,” said Fr. Weber, speaking at a news conference Feb. 11, the day Pope Benedict XVI announced he was resigning the Chair of St. Peter. “At this point there were three people claiming to be pope in the Church.”

Gregory, though the legitimate pope, was locked in a bitter dispute for nearly a decade with antipopes Benedict XIII and Alexander V and their successors in the midst of the Great Western Schism, he said. After several unsuccessful attempts, the Council of Constance was convened under Gregory’s authority. Through a decree read at the council, Gregory — then nearing his 90s — renounced the papacy, and the council deposed the two other claimants.

To ensure no further confusion, the Chair of Peter was vacant for two years after Gregory’s resignation until the legitimate election of Pope Martin V officially ended the schism in 1417.

The hermit pope

The second-to-last pope to resign, Celestine V, did so under a different sort of controversy, Fr. Weber said. And he was also the last to be elected without a papal conclave.

“At that time (in 1292) the College of Cardinals had gone two years without being able to pick a pope. There was such a division, and so a hermit from the mountains wrote a note to the cardinals and said ‘if you don’t elect a pope soon, the wrath of God is going to come down upon you,’” Fr. Weber said. “And so the cardinals thought, ‘well what about this hermit; maybe he’d be a good guy.’ And so they elected him as Celestine V.”

The problem for Celestine, though, was that as a monk and hermit, he had virtually no administrative or political experience. Though at first declining the papacy, he relented under pressure from the cardinals and the king of Naples. The king, however, began exhibiting tremendous influence in the new pope’s administration, and Celestine realized he was unable to effectively govern.

“He was 85 years old and had been spending his life in private prayer, and they brought him to the papacy. And as you can imagine, he found the burden of the office to be too much, and after four months, for the good of the Church, he stepped aside,” Fr. Weber said.

Local precedence

While rare for a pope to do so, a path had perhaps been cleared by the relatively recent precedent of local bishops resigning at an older age for the good of their dioceses, Fr. Weber said.

“I would remind people that it wasn’t long ago at all that it was normal for a bishop to serve until his death as the bishop of the diocese and for the pastor of a parish to serve until his death within very recent history. So the pope is I guess in line with the new developments of the past century or so,” he said.

But Fr. Weber added that no one wants to see the current Holy Father go. “For faithful Catholics, you’re never going to have a big clamor for a pope to resign — at least I don’t think you will, anyway — because he is someone we look to as a shepherd, as a father, and we get attached to him like we would a bishop, or a pastor or many others.”

Fr. Weber said while Blessed John Paul II showed the world by his example “how to die, that most important moment of our life,” Pope Benedict is giving the Church another side of that.

“An equally difficult thing is knowing when to step aside,” Fr. Weber said. “So in two different ways John Paul and Benedict have given us great examples that we’ll benefit from.”