Pope’s Resignation a First in Almost 600 Years

This medieval illustration shows Pope Urban II in 1095, calling for Christians to reclaim the Holy Land.

In mid-February, Pope Benedict XVI, the 85-year-old leader of the Roman Catholic Church, announced he would resign, primarily because of his failing health. The news surprised millions of people around the world. For nearly six centuries, no pope had stepped down from the office—not since Pope Gregory XII left the papacy in 1415.

The resignation of Benedict XVI, after a reign of less than eight years, is just the latest event in the papacy’s tumultuous history. At times popes were subject to worldly rulers. But for centuries, from the 600s on, popes wielded considerable political power on their own. Their support, given or withheld, could make or break a European monarch. One significant example came on Christmas Day in the year 800. The Frankish leader Charlemagne was in Rome for purposes of his own when Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor of the Romans. From this event arose the Holy Roman Empire, which survived until 1806.

Popes have fielded armies and influenced world events. It was Pope Urban II who declared the First Crusade in 1095, resulting in centuries of on-and-off conflict. On occasion during the Middle Ages, more than one man claimed to be pope. Prestige and economic benefits boosted the towns where these rival popes established themselves. Popes also ruled earthly territory directly: a large chunk of the Italian Peninsula known as the Papal States remained under papal control until the 19th century.

Back to the present . . . Amid the speculation about who will succeed Benedict XVI, some people have expressed the hope that the next pope will be from Latin America or Africa, where Catholic ties would be strengthened as a result. Others want a pope who will take a stronger stand against the child sex-abuse scandals. Reform-minded Catholics hope that their next leader will loosen long-standing rules against the ordination of female priests and the use of birth control.

Image credit: © Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

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  1. nummy says:

    Long time

  2. nummy says:

    Thats a long time

  3. Razgriz says:

    Julie, thank you for posting your quseiton and response. This has been something that I have been struggling with as well. On one hand I know that the Church sees marriage as joining of 2 souls to become 1 with one of the main focus of that marriage is to have children. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with being able to designate someone you love as being able to make medical decisions for you if you are unable, ability to avoid estate taxes when a person you lived with for 30 years passes away or have someone you can confide in. With the way the laws are set up the only way to achieve this is through marriage (unless you can afford a lawyer to prepare legal documents and this will only take care of some of these issues). The Church is not against love. It isn’t against two people of the same sex living a life together. What it is against is sex between two men or two women because that type of sex is not capable of producing children. So the way I see it is there are really 2 separate issues here that people are confusing as one. The Church is arguing that marriage between 2 men or 2 women is not right in God’s eyes because no children can come of that marriage. Don’t forget we refer to God as Our Father and Mary as Blessed Mother. The gay right movement is focused on the legal benefits of marriage. Being able to visit a partner in the hospital, avoiding tax penalties, provide health insurance to someone they love. I personally believe the gay right movement focusing on marriage and not civil unions is because they feel they would not be treated equally (it would be like a second class marriage). I do see the argument for this. We know how the south was segregated for so many years and how separate but equal was not truly equal. To me the real way to solve this to provide an easy way for someone to designate another that they would like to have the legal ability to make decisions (health, legal or otherwise), ability to designate one person (other then one’s children) that they would like to add to their health care plan, and the right to provide the house 2 people have shared for years to avoid being taxed outrageously when the other person passes. To me this would be more inline with what Jesus would be in favor of. Don’t forget that Jesus told John to take care of Mary after He rose from the dead. In our current legal and health system, John would not have been able to visit Mary if she was in the hospital or make legal decisions if she was not able to do so. I personally don’t think that is what Jesus would have wanted and we should look for a way to provide the benefits that have been attached to those that are married in the government eyes to those that do not fit into the one man/one women marriage role, but to those that are single and want to select their best friend of 20 years or two men or two women that chose to share a life together. As Catholics, we need to stop believing that the best way to stop sin is through the legal system and start looking for ways to support and truly show love to one another.

  4. Madisen says:

    I like world history now! thank you