As my good friend Kathleen put it so clearly over the phone at 8am this morning: "I feel like a little kid who woke up to find out Santa isn't real!"
Shocking, Truly Shocking
Pope Benedict announced early today that he is stepping down from his position as Vicar of Christ, officially as of Feb. 28th. Director of the Holy See Press Office, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said in a press conference that the “Pope took us by surprise”, but denied claims that the resignation has anything to do with a specific illness. In the Pope's own words:
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However [...] both strength of mind and body are necessary, 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." Read the Pope's full announcement here.
According to Vatican Expert Rocco Palmo, Fr. Lombardi has since made some clarifications about the Pope's decision.
"Pope Benedict XVI has given his resignation freely, in accordance with Canon 332 §2 of the Code of Canon Law.
Pope Benedict XVI will not take part in the Conclave for the election of his successor.
Pope Benedict XVI will move to the Papal residence in Castel Gandolfo when his resignation shall become effective.
When renovation work on the monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican is complete, the Holy Father will move there for a period of prayer and reflection."
This is definitely uncharted waters for the Church. The last Pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415 who did so to end a troubling time in the Church of schismatic anti-popes and a confused college of Cardinals. It wasn't exactly a resignation of the same kind. But if you look back before 1415 to the first Pope to resign willfully, things start to get interesting.
Pope Celestine V resigned in 1294 only five months into his pontificate, just after issuing a decree declaring it permissible for a Pope to abdicate. And there are some very interesting and symbolic historical connections between Pope Celestine V of 1294 and Pope Benedict XVI, foreshadowings almost, as Dr. Scott Hahn noted on his Facebook page:
"Back on April 29, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI did something rather striking, but which went largely unnoticed.
He stopped off in Aquila, Italy, and visited the tomb of an obscure medieval Pope named St. Celestine V (1215-1296). After a brief prayer, he left his pallium, the symbol of his own episcopal authority as Bishop of Rome, on top of Celestine's tomb!
Fifteen months later, on July 4, 2010, Benedict went out of his way again, this time to visit and pray in the cathedral of Sulmona, near Rome, before the relics of this same saint, Celestine V.
Few people, however, noticed at the time.
Only now, we may be gaining a better understanding of what it meant. These actions were probably more than pious acts. More likely, they were profound and symbolic gestures of a very personal nature, which conveyed a message that a Pope can hardly deliver any other way.
In the year 1294, this man (Fr. Pietro Angelerio), known by all as a devout and holy priest, was elected Pope, somewhat against his will, shortly before his 80th birthday (Ratzinger was 78 when he was elected Pope in 2005). Just five months later, after issuing a formal decree allowing popes to resign (or abdicate, like other rulers), Pope Celestine V exercised that right. And now Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to follow in the footsteps of this venerable model."
Normal canonical protocol in the wake of a Pope's death calls for the voting process of the next Pope to take place between 15 and 20 days from the moment of vacancy. In this situation, however, the nine days of official mourning before the election will not apply. (At least not officially. Twitter and Facebook have already begun the mourning process.)
What should we be doing during this strange middle period between the solemn announcement of our Holy Father's resignation and the election of the next Pope?
Pray. Pray a lot. Thank God for the holy man that has been leading the Church up until now. Pray that he be comforted in this humbling, courageous, and hard decision. Pray for the Cardinals who will be trying to elect a new Pope, that they will be guided by the Holy Spirit. Do some extra penance and prayers this Lent for our Church, for Pope Benedict, and the entire Church.
Express your love and support for Papa Benedict XVI. Facebook, Twitter, your front lawn, anyway you can to let the world and our Beloved Father know that we are praying for him and are so thankful for the gift he is to the church.
And most importantly:
###UPDATE: For a list of current eligible papal electors, see this resource.