Five years with a pope emeritus

On Feb. 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI made history with the declaration of his intention to resign from the papacy — the first pope in modern times to do so and the first to leave office voluntarily in more than 700 years.

Pope Francis has referred to the decision by Pope Benedict not as a personal act, but as an institutional one — something that changes the nature of the papacy and that frees future popes to take the same step.

Five years later, we look at the new era created by Pope Benedict’s decision, an era in which a former pope is living among the Church on earth.

The signs were there

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI wasn’t a total shock to many Vatican watchers. In “Light of the World” (Ignatius Press, $19.95), the 2010 book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict had said on the matter, “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.”

Preceding these words was a gesture. In 2009, Benedict XVI paid a visit to earthquake-damaged L’Aquila, Italy, which also is the final resting place of Pope St. Celestine V, the last pope to resign voluntarily, in the year 1294. While visiting the basilica where Celestine’s remains are housed, Pope Benedict placed a white stole on the saint’s glass casket, a move that took on profound new significance following the announcement of his own resignation.

CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

Shock and awe

Even at a distance of five years, the announcement of Pope Benedict’s resignation still resonates like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky — which is exactly the image employed by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, in his official response to the pope at the meeting of cardinals where Benedict made the shocking announcement.

The weeks that followed saw the Church covering uncharted terrain as traditions — such as the sealing of the apostolic apartment, the destruction of the fisherman’s ring (a sign of the pope’s authority) and the summoning of the cardinals to Rome — all played out, but with the previous pope still alive.

Conversely, the Church witnessed a papal transition unfold without a period of mourning or a massive papal funeral as part of it. A day after the voting members of the College of Cardinals entered into conclave the following month, the process culminated with the election of Pope Francis on March 13, 2013.

Cardinals Giovanni Battista Re and Angelo Sodano talk after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation Feb. 11, 2013. CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano

Leaving the stage

A Swiss Guard closes the main door of the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, Italy, at 8 p.m., Feb. 28, 2013, as the Swiss Guards conclude their protective service to Pope Benedict XVI. CNS photo by Paul Haring

The last day of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, Feb. 28, 2013, was like no other in the history of the Church. In a morning meeting with the College of Cardinals, which would in the days ahead meet to discuss the needs of the Church and carry out the work of electing his successor, Pope Benedict pledged his unconditional support and obedience to whomever the cardinals chose.

That afternoon, he left the apostolic palace and boarded a helicopter in the Vatican gardens. After circling the city of Rome, the helicopter took him to the papal summer residence outside of Rome, Castel Gandolfo. There he addressed the gathered crowd one last time as pope, noting he was now “just a pilgrim who is starting the last part of his pilgrimage on this earth.”

At 8 p.m., the hour that the resignation and sede vacante were to begin, the Swiss Guard at the entrance of Castel Gandolfo left his post, indicating that the pope was no longer present.

The helicopter carrying Pope Benedict XVI flies past St. Peter’s Basilica as it leaves the Vatican for Castel Gandolfo, Italy, Feb. 28, 2013. CNS photo via Reuters

'Four hands'

Pope Francis greets retired Pope Benedict XVI during a June 28, 2016, ceremony at the Vatican marking the 65th anniversary of the retired pope’s priestly ordination. CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano

From the very first meeting of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, following the latter’s election, the relationship between the two has been historic. In one early exchange, Benedict entrusted Francis with his unfinished encyclical on faith, which Pope Francis published in 2013 as Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), calling it “the work of four hands.”

In Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has a confidant like no pope ever has had. And Pope Francis stated in 2014 that the presence of Benedict XVI is “like having a wise grandfather at home.“

In 2016, at a Vatican celebration in honor of his 65th anniversary of priesthood, Benedict XVI told Pope Francis, “More than the beauty found in the Vatican Gardens, your goodness is the place where I live; I feel protected.”

And while there is only one pope, the work of four hands continues, even if one set is guiding the barque of Peter while the other is serving the Church folded in prayer.

Seen and heard


In the days following the announcement of his resignation, Benedict XVI told the priests of Rome that he would support the Church in prayer, even as he remained “hidden from the world.”

While Benedict’s life dedicated to prayer is of no doubt, the retired pope has been more visible than some might have expected as the Church began this unprecedented journey of life with a living former pope. His appearances have included the April 2014 canonization Mass of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II and the beatification Mass of Paul VI (the pope who made Joseph Ratzinger a cardinal) the following October.

“God is not, let’s say, a ruling power, a distant force; rather he is love and he loves me — and as such, life should be guided by him, by this power called love.”

Benedict XVI also has spoken out in retirement, in the occasional public statement, but also in the form of another book-length interview with Peter Seewald, 2016’s “Last Testament” (Bloomsbury Continuum, $24). In the book, Benedict reflects on his time as pope, which he said was happy, but says that the papacy was always a burden, too. Reflecting on his advanced age, he said his prayer life has deepened, that “the closer you come to (God’s) face, the more intensely you feel how much you have done wrong.”

New Traditions


The presence of a retired pope has made possible new traditions in the life of the Church that would have been unthinkable before, including Pope Francis taking newly appointed cardinals to see Benedict (as pictured in 2016 below) and Benedict XVI following Pope Francis through the Doors of Mercy at St. Peter’s Basilica during the inauguration of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2015 (right).

CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano

Ad Multos Annos

Retired Pope Benedict XVI raises a glass of beer with Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer during his 90th birthday celebration April 17, 2017.  CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano

At the time of Pope Benedict’s resignation, many speculated that his age, frail appearance and decision to resign indicated that his death was imminent. Five years later, now age 90, Pope Benedict continues to serve the Church through a life dedicated to prayer.

He receives few visitors in the former convent in the Vatican Gardens that has served as his residence since shortly after his resignation, but occasionally a glimpse of Benedict XVI still finds its way to the outside world — such as with the celebration of his 90th birthday in April 2017. As he continues to live out his time on earth, each day is a deeper fulfillment of the monumental decision to leave the stage, which he made five years ago.

“[I]n today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, 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. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, entrusted to me by the cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.”