In shocking news that quickly demonstrated the ongoing relevance of medieval historians, Pope Benedict announced that he will lay down his governance of the Church of Rome at the end of this month. Such an event has not happened for nearly 600 years when his predecessor, Gregory XII, sacrificed himself in 1415 to bring an end to the Great Western Schism. It is appropriate, in an historical Church, to look back. Rooted in tradition, we see that we do have the resources to cope with such a stunning and in some ways heartbreaking announcement.
Benedict XVI used the occasion of a canonization consistory to make this most momentous of announcements. In canonizing the pope exercises his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians in an extraordinary way, making this consistory a solemn moment for such an announcement. The consistory was held with the cardinals, who will govern the Church in a sede vacante, therefore it was highly fitting for the Pope to address this message to them. It was also fitting in such a moment that the Pontiff expressed himself in the universal language of the Catholic Church: Latin. Just as he had in the first address to his Cardinals after election, Benedict underscored the universality of the Church spread throughout the world, by speaking its catholic language at this most solemn of moments. Further, in fixing the date for the canonization after his own resignation, Benedict emphasized the continuity of the Petrine office, for on 12 May, we will have a new supreme pontiff to undertake that blessed ceremony.
It is well to see if we can glean any significance from the saints to be honored. Two are holy foundresses of female orders. After his resignation, Benedict will retire to such a monastery to live out his life in prayer and reflection, and indeed, in penance for the Church that he loves so much. Also to be canonized are Antonio Primaldi and the 800 martyrs of Otranto, brutally killed in an Ottoman raid in 1480, when they refused to convert to Islam.
By the end of the 1470s Mehmed II, called “The Conqueror” was preparing a death blow to Europe. Having taken the impregnable city of Constantinople, and having pacified the Balkans, his fleet was freely sailing the Mediterranean. Having taken “New Rome” he set his sights on “Old Rome.” He launched a raiding party in 1480 on the maritime city of Otranto, at the heel of Italy’s boot. Thousands were massacred in what was probably an expedition meant to instill terror in seafaring Italy. After a two week siege, the city fell. The civil and religious leaders of the city were either beheaded or sawed in half. 800 of the leading men of the town refused to convert to Islam and were sentenced to death. Led by Antonio Primaldi, who had been a spokesman for the group, they were beheaded, one by one on a hill outside town. Antonio and his townsmen had, in reality, saved Europe for the unstoppable Mehmed II died at only 49 the next year, frustrating Ottoman plans for expansion.
What can this seemingly incongruous thing tell us about Benedict? In the first place he, like the martyrs of Otranto, had been on the vanguard of the fight to save Europe. Like them he confronted an aggressive Islam. More than that however, soon-to-be Saint Antonio and his companions died for their Catholic faith and their freedom to practice it. They are martyrs of religious intolerance. In reality they are living echoes of the Regensburg address, they gave their lives for the principles the Pope enunciated there. In response to violence and intolerance they laid down their lives. In a similar way the aging Pope has laid down his responsibilities after giving his whole life for the religion of Faith and Reason. How appropriate and beautiful that the pope selected this moment to make his announcement.
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