It has been nearly two weeks since Pope Benedict XVI announced his intentions to resign from the papacy – or in his more precise words, to “renounce” the office.
I think he has been a great pope since his elevation to that role in April 2005.
Personally, I was surprised when I first heard the announcement, but not disturbed by it.
A few years ago, I read the 2010 book Light of the World – an interview with Peter Seewald – in which the pope explained, “If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” (You can find the quote on page 40).
Following Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement, I reflected on his age and looked up how old his most immediate predecessors were when they died in office. As you can see from the following table, Benedict XVI – who will turn 86 on April 16 – has already outlived 9 of the previous 10 popes (with Leo XIII being the only exception):
|Pope||Dates as Pope||Age at Death|
|Benedict XVI||2005-current||Still living: 85 years old (papacy to end 47 days before his 86th birthday)|
|John Paul II||1978-2005||84|
|John Paul I||1978||65|
|Pius IX||1846-1878||85 (died 102 days prior to 86th birthday)|
Only three other popes since 1295 have lived longer: Leo XIII (mentioned above) who died in 1903 at the age of 93; Clement XII who died in 1740 at 87; and Clement X who died in 1676 at 86 (see Wikipedia’s List of Pope Ages).
Considering that he has already outlived most of the other popes in history, I say Pope Benedict XVI is exercising great humility and prudence by stepping down. With increasing life expectancies in our modern era, I wouldn’t be surprised to see other popes similarly resign in the future, if they reach an advanced age.
Since no pope has resigned in nearly 600 years, there is no precedent for what to call a retired pope. I suppose “Bishop Emeritus of Rome” would be appropriate. I’m not sure if he’d revert to being called Joseph Ratzinger or retain the name Benedict XVI. I suppose we’ll learn in the next few days, when his pontificate ends on February 28.
My prayers are with Pope Benedict XVI in these final days of his pontificate, and with the upcoming papal enclave.