A Season Comes to an End

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.

pope-benedict-xviWhat 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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Donald S. Prudlo, MA, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville STate University in Jacksonville, AL.

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  • wbarquez

    Benedict XVI never wanted to be the Pope and we have to understand that the pressure and stress of the pastoral office is already taking its toll on the aging Pope. Perhaps he thought that it would be unjust and unfair to continue serving as the Pastor of the Universal Church with the creeping incapacity that comes with age.
    In 1997, Cardinal Ratzinger asked Pope John Paul II to allow him to simply become a librarian at the Vatican Library and sought to resume his academic career and write his masterpiece (whatever that is, but his three volume work on the Life of Jesus of Nazareth is already a magnum opus on its own). But the Pope did not accept the Cardinal’s offer. But of course we cannot quell the conspiracy theories and the wild imaginings that comes with the dubious distinction of being the fifth Pope in history to have resigned from office. And of course electoral excitement is in the air. Will it be the Italian Cardinal Tettamanzi, the African Cardinal Arinze or the Latin American Cardinal Maradiago? Will the future Pope assume the name Benedict XVII or John Paul III? Meantime, let us continue to pray for the health of Pope Benedict the XVI and wisdom for the leaders of the Church.

  • Orlando ,

    I am struggling with this decision. The Chair of St. Peter is not a political office that one can relinquish at will. It was the work of the Holy Spirit that placed Cardinal Ratzinger in that Chair. He can not just give it up because he is tired. Jesus too was tired and suffered greatly. He to wanted to give up, even asking the Father to spare him while in the Garden of Getsemany. But He didn’t quit. Further when he told Peter that he was the rock that He would build his Church on, He did so because He knew that the struggles would be great and the suffering unbearable but knew that Peter, and by extension all future Popes, could handle it , precisely because the Holy Spirit would guide them. This does not feel right and I pray that it is not a foreshadowing of very dark days to come for the Church.

  • JMC

    Sadly, we are all too aware of the political corruption that has long infected the beaurocracy of the Vatican; perhaps one factor in the Pope’s resignation is that, because he wasn’t playing the game their way, they made his life so miserable that, in his failing health, he could no longer endure it. Perhaps the overriding intention of his subsequent life of prayer will be for his successor. I know that’s where mine will be, as it was with Benedict.
    I was sitting in a college classroom the day he was elected; while we were waiting for class to start, some of us were browsing the Internet. There on the screen, in the bright red strip that MSN uses for “breaking news,” was the announcement that Cardinal Ratzinger had been chosen to fill the Chair of Peter. From the back of the room, one of my classmates uttered a very loud, heartfelt, “YESSS!!!” Of course, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he was already very well known for his firm stance (the MSM called it “hard-line”) on many issues, and Catholics of a more traditional bent had been hoping he would be chosen, so it seemed an answer to prayer when he was. Now, however, except for those who follow events in the Vatican closely, I suspect most of us have no clue who most of the possible “candidates” are, which is closer to the usual state of affairs. Many are hoping that the new Pope will be more lenient about the hot-button issues, as explained in another article on this site today. Boy, are they in for a BIG surprise.

  • JMC

    Canon law does permit the resignation of a Pope, and he himself said that he only made the decision after months of prayerful consideration. The responsibility of the pontificate is not one a man takes up lightly, nor does he set it aside easily. I sincerely hope you can set your mind to rest on this issue; my prayers are with you.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    Not only is it certain that Pope Benedict’s aging body is betraying him, but it is also possible that he may have learned that he is in the early stages of a form of dementia or something of equal gravity which would more than impede his ability to lead. We must pray for him & our Church – & trust in God Who promised us that the gates of hell would NOT prevail! 🙂