The Year of Two Popes

Many Catholics can remember the dramatic Year of Three Popes in 1978, when Pope Paul VI died, was succeeded by the short-lived Pope John Paul I and was himself followed by Pope Blessed John Paul II. Years from now, Catholics looking back at 2013 will likely express a similar amazement at the Year of Two Popes. The one notable difference, of course, is that the sede vacante — the interregnum between pontiffs — was not to bury a deceased pope and elect his successor, but to witness the departure of one pope through resignation and the election of a new Vicar of Christ under circumstances not encountered in more than 700 years.

Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement last February that he would renounce the papacy at the end of that month sent a genuine shockwave through the Church and across the globe. His decision was not unprecedented, but it was certainly unique in the modern life of the Church.

The events of the resignation and the conclave that followed became, ultimately, a testament to the two men at the heart of the decision, the pope emeritus and the man who followed him, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis.

‘I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome’

pope benedict
Pope Benedict XVI leads his final Angelus as pope from the window of his apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Feb. 24, 2013. CNS photo

On the morning of Feb. 11, 2013, Pope Benedict informed a gathering of the cardinals in Rome and other officials of the Roman Curia that he was resigning. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, spoke for the shocked room of prelates — and ultimately for the whole Church — when he said: “Your moving message has resounded in this room like a lightning bolt in a calm sky. We’ve listened to you with a sense of shock, rather in total disbelief.”

Pope Benedict had not rushed into the decision. His health had been declining, and he had grown increasingly concerned about his ability to govern the Church with the energy needed to deal with the crises of modernity and to implement the reforms that were needed. According to the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano , Pope Benedict had reached the decision to resign after his journey to Mexico and Cuba in the spring of 2012.

Images from resignation of Pope Benedict XVI

Once he made the announcement, the pontiff transformed his remaining days in the Vatican into a time of prayer and discernment. Huge crowds gathered to say farewell, and he used his addresses and homilies to impart poignant lessons of humility and service. Speaking at his final general audience on Feb. 27, Benedict revealed his expectations for his remaining days.

“I do not return to private life,” the pope said. “To a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s bounds.”

The next day, at an audience with the members of the College of Cardinals literally moments before leaving the apostolic palace forever, he likewise pledged himself to the new pope.

“Among you,” he said, “among the College of Cardinals, there is also the future pope, to whom, here today, I already promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.”

Keenly aware of the challenging situation facing his successor, Pope Benedict made every effort to assist him. He had explained his reasons for resigning, and he had vowed complete obedience to the pontiff who would follow him. Pope Benedict then removed himself completely from the scene at the Vatican and made his way to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo while the cardinals performed their duties and while his place of retirement was being finished.

Even with Pope Benedict’s thoughtful resignation, however, the cardinals still had to proceed with a conclave unlike any since 1294.

About the Artist
Jason Bach grew up drawing cartoons in Oregon and studied theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. Bach has made a name for himself in the Catholic community with his light-hearted comic takes on the Faith, including the series ‘Frank and Ben: Holy Rome-Mates’ following Pope Francis’ election. This cartoon was commissioned by Our Sunday Visitor in honor of the one-year anniversary of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s resignation. Bach’s website is

Two popes embrace

Resignations from the papacy are not unheard of in the historical life of the Church. Pope Gregory XII voluntarily resigned in 1415 in order to bring an end to the Great Western Schism, but the closer historical parallel — and one that Pope Benedict clearly looked to in making his own decision — was Pope St. Celestine V, a hermit who’d been elected pope in 1294 at the age of 80 in order to end a deadlocked conclave that had gone on for some two years. Untrained to be pontiff and ill-suited for the office, Pope Celestine prudently resigned before a consistory of cardinals at Naples, Italy. Celestine’s successor, Pope Boniface VIII, ordered the pope emeritus to be taken into custody to prevent his misuse by the many scheming enemies of the Church. Pope Celestine died two years later in the monastic cell he had desired.

The cardinals in 2013 understood clearly that the pope they were electing faced not only crises from many directions, including scandals besetting the Vatican — financial, moral, bureaucratic — and the already awesome burden of the papacy, but the enormously difficult task of succeeding a living pope.

Their choice proved as surprising as the very resignation only a few weeks before — Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina. Far from being overwhelmed by the challenges, the new pontiff seemed from the start to transcend them with immense charity, pastoral energy and genuine aplomb. Pope Francis wasted little time in going to see his predecessor. The world saw images that were truly unparalleled: two popes — both in white, one retired and one freshly chosen — in a fraternal embrace. They were not rivals for the papacy. The one had followed the other in an orderly and legal fashion, and there was no need for the resigned pope to be hidden away.

Pope Emeritus Benedict returned to the Vatican City State on May 2, 2013, to settle into his place of retirement, the Mater Ecclesiae convent on the grounds of the Vatican Gardens. Pope Francis was there to welcome him home. The two have a good working relationship, facilitated by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the prefect of the papal household who has remained also secretary to Pope Emeritus Benedict and who has described himself as a “bridge” between the current and former popes. They share a bond that is utterly unique, and Pope Francis is blessed to be able to consult with someone else who understands so personally the enormity of the Petrine ministry.

The pope has made it a point to visit Pope Emeritus Benedict, including just before Christmas, and he has invited him to attend various public events. In answer to the media question as to whether he might feel under the shadow of the former pope, Pope Francis embraced Pope Benedict’s unfinished encyclical on faith, made his own contributions to it and promulgated it as his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei(“The Light of Faith”).

In July, Pope Francis encouraged his predecessor to attend the consecration of the Vatican City State to the protection of St. Michael the Archangel. The presence of the pope emeritus was significant because Pope Francis saw the consecration as a vital act of advancing a spiritual reform of the Roman Curia that Pope Benedict had started but had lacked the vigor to bring to fruition. Once again, the occasion was marked by the image of two popes, both in white, embracing, but with the pope emeritus taking a conspicuously secondary role to his successor.

A life of prayer and solitude

The gathering for the consecration demonstrated again that the prayerful, humble and nearly serene way that Pope Benedict went about his resignation had set the tone for his life as pope emeritus.

Good to his pledge, he’s remained largely away from the public spotlight. He’s been known to leave Mater Ecclesiae on occasion and enjoys visits from friends, especially his brother, Georg. Otherwise, Pope Benedict has been very reticent to be in public save for some very specific circumstances.

When Georg underwent a medical checkup in Rome on Jan. 4, the pope emeritus visited him in the hospital and the two celebrated Georg’s 90th birthday on Jan. 15 in the Vatican with a classical music concert.

Pope Francis shakes hands with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at Mater Ecclesiae monastery at the Vatican Dec. 23, 2013. CNS photo

Likewise, Pope Emeritus Benedict traditionally met with his former students, the “Ratzinger Schülerkreis,” every year at Castel Gandolfo. Last September, for the first time, he did not take part in the annual meeting, but he celebrated Mass with his former students in the chapel of the governorate of Vatican City State. And then there was his decision to write a letter to the militant Italian atheist and mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi, which was published in extract form in September by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and printed in its entirety in November by the German-language agency The pope emeritus wrote the letter in reply to Odifreddi’s 2011 book “Dear Pope, I’m Writing to You.” The papal response was wide ranging, but notable was Pope Emeritus Benedict’s defense of his record in the clergy sex abuse scandal. He wrote: “I have never tried to hide these things. That the power of evil penetrates even to this point in the interior life of the faith is, for us, a suffering which, on the one hand, we must endure, while on the other hand, we must at the same time do everything possible so that cases such as these never occur again.”

The letter was important to him to express a defense of the Church’s authentic record in the scandal, but also to continue his own intellectual outreach to atheists and secularists in a postmodern world. It additionally confirmed what his guests have told to the press after their encounters with him. His health remains frail, but his mind is as sharp as ever.

Pope Benedict
Mexican seminarians hold a sign in Spanish last February saying, “The greatness of a man in the humility of a pope.” CNS photo

In an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero last October, Archbishop Gänswein gave some details as to Pope Emeritus Benedict’s daily routine. He prays, listens to music, reads, maintains a very active correspondence and has many visitors. He also takes daily walks with Archbishop Gänswein in the grove behind the monastery and prays the Rosary. “The day,” he added, “is well planned.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI remains faithful to his promise of obedience to the new pontiff. When asked about the danger of having “a pope and an anti-pope,” Archbishop Gänswein said to Il Messaggero: “There is a reigning pope and a pope emeritus. Whoever knows Benedict XVI knows that this danger does not exist. He has never interfered and does not interfere in the governance of the Church; it is not part of his style. The theologian Ratzinger also knows that his every word could attract the public’s attention and whatever he said would be read as being for or against his successor.”

A year later

A year after the shocking resignation it is possible to see it as an act of service to the Church, but not the last in an extraordinary life of service.

The resignation created the opportunity for his successor to push ahead with the New Evangelization, the reform and renewal of the Roman Curia, and the proclamation of the Gospel to a troubled world. Pope Benedict lacked the strength to achieve them.

As his successor Pope Francis carries forward as Vicar of Christ with zeal and a surprising papal style, he does so with the certain foundation provided by his predecessors, especially his most immediate one. Francis is aided further, as is the entire Church, by the humble presence of the pope emeritus who will remain at service, in prayer, until God calls him home.

At his last Angelus address on Sunday, Feb. 24, the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, Pope Benedict said: “The Lord is calling me to ‘climb the mountain,’ to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church. Indeed, if God is asking me to do this, it is so that I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength.”

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.