February 25, 2013

ROME - The halls of history might hold some clues as to what kind of impact Pope Benedict's resignation will have on the Church and how to navigate a smooth transition, said a U.S. scholar.

To find some answers, "we sort of have to go back to these mediaeval cases (of papal resignation) because we literally have nothing else" to go by, said Joshua Birk, a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and expert in mediaeval Mediterranean history.

Only the voluntary resignation of St. Celestine V in 1294, Birk told Catholic News Service Feb. 15, can offer relevant parallels to help the Church make sense of the free and willful resignation of Pope Benedict.

The late 13th-century pope "established the ground rules for how papal conclaves will operate in selecting the pope," said Birk.

The formal process used for centuries to select a new pope, a process that generally follows the death of a pope, is actually the model St. Celestine established for "how to select a pope after a resignation," he said.

Before Pope Celestine, the selection process was "less formalized" and often operated much differently from one papal selection to the next, he said.


Just as Pope Celestine's bold move carried with it important and lasting norms and traditions, so too, may Pope Benedict's decision usher in a new approach, the scholar said.

"The innovation Benedict has shown in resigning may give the College of Cardinals more leeway and may allow them to be more innovative and perhaps more forward-thinking in their selections," he said.

The Church will have to grapple with what having a retired pope in the wings will mean, he said.

The Church will have to simply look at "how this transfer is negotiated" or handled and Celestine's case "can be tremendously useful for us to look at."


Birk said Pope Benedict felt a great affection for St. Celestine.

He declared a Celestine Year from August 2009 to August 2010 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the saint's birth and he visited the saint's relics twice during his pontificate.

During a trip to L'Aquila in 2009, Pope Benedict placed the long woolen pallium he received when he was elected on the saintly pope's casket and left it there as a gift.

Pope Celestine was plucked at the age of 79 from his secluded life as a Benedictine monk and hermit and thrust into the pontificate in 1294.


While he never fled, Pope Benedict never kept his reluctance to become pope a secret.

The then-78-year-old pontiff told a group of German pilgrims the day after his installation that he equated the growing consensus among cardinals to elect him pope as "an axe" getting ready to fall on his head.

He had been looking forward to a life of peaceful retirement and said he felt "inadequate" for a job that demanded great "dynamism" and strength.