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.
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- Pope Benedict XVI Resignation: Controversy, Religious Outreach Mark Pope’s Abbreviated Reign
This news report about the pope’s resignation analyzes several aspects of Benedict XVI’s brief reign and his legacy.
(Source: ABC News, February 11, 2013)
This encyclopedia entry provides a basic history of the papacy.
(Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica; accessed February 28, 2013)
- Benedict XVI Leaves as Popular Pope, but No John Paul II
The Washington Post and ABC News conducted a poll about the pope’s popularity. Read the details here.
(Source: Washington Post, February 21, 2013)
- Popes and Anti-Popes
This privately maintained website gathers all kinds of details about the popes—“good & bad, from St. Peter to John Paul II”; includes a description of the selection process for a new pope.
(Source: Ojai Orange; accessed February 28, 2013)
- How Next Pope Must Tackle Child Sex Abuse
This article focuses on the most prominent issue that will face Pope Benedict’s successor.
(Source: CNN, February 26, 2013)