I woke up this morning to the startling news that Pope Benedict XVI was resigning at the end of the month, citing failing health and energy. The last time a pope resigned was in 1415 when Pope Gregory XII stepped down to end the Western Schism that had multiple claimants to the papacy. Obviously, nobody alive has experienced a situation like this.
Pontiffs die—sometimes suddenly, sometimes after a long illness—and an appropriate mourning period is completed before a conclave is convened to elect a new pope. The new pope is guided by the former pope’s staff and tradition, and learns the job as he goes. Very little changes, and when it does, it’s not rapid change. This is the way it’s been for 2,000 years.
For the first time in six centuries the next pope will have his predecessor alive and nearby. How will that man, known only to God right now, feel about that? No pope in more than half a millennium has had his predecessor around to watch how he’s doing.
Presidents and Prime Ministers usually have one or more predecessors around and often consult them on matters of state. There’s a period of time between the election and the inauguration, and a transition staff ensures a seamless transfer of power. This happens with local elected offices as well. It’s considered a courtesy for the former leader to help the new leader assume power.
Monarchs die, but they have had decades to groom their replacement, their heir, for the job. The rare abdicationusually results in a parent going into retirement while the heir takes the reigns.
If the President of the United States dies in office or resigns(and I’ve experienced both in my lifetime) there is still an orderly, if slightly frantic, transition of power. Even with short notice and lots of emotion, the new president can step into the job because presumably he (or someday she) has been kept in the loop and groomed for the job. The U.S. Constitution (25th Amendment) is very clear about presidential succession.
Not so with the pope, who is, after all, a head of state as well as the spiritual leader of a billion Catholics worldwide. There is no “pope-in-waiting” or “vice pope,” no constitutional line of succession. While names of possible new popes are already being tossed around, nobody is groomed for the job, and nobody on Earth has ever had the last pope on speed dial.
By many accounts, Pope Benedict accepted the job reluctantly. A shy academic theologian more comfortable with his books and writing, he took to the job with energy despite being the oldest pope (78) at election in more than 300 years. While he never achieved the rock star status of Blessed John Paul II, he grew into the role as the years went on, and leaves a legacy of influence and change in the church during troubled times. He even promoted the use of social media by the clergy, and encouraged better communication from the Vatican.
Yes, the shadow of the sex abuse scandal is a long one, and it will be a generation before those involved are no longer part of the clergy. But Benedict’s influence, leadership, and scholarship cast a longer shadow, and the next pope is faced with the extraordinary knowledge that the only guy alive who knows what the job is like is only a text or a tweet away.