Pope Francis is shaking things up in the Catholic Church to such an extent that many talk about a 'Francis revolution.' Yet the single most revolutionary act committed by any pope in at least the last 600 years was made by Pope Benedict, not Francis.
- John Allen, The Boston Globe
On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI used a meeting of cardinals discussing new saints to deliver the stunning announcement that he planned to resign, effective 8pm Rome time on February 28. The news was a total surprise to everyone except a handful of papal intimates, and it set the stage for all the drama that’s followed.
One cardinal said afterward that he sat in the room well after the meeting broke up, still unable to comprehend what had just happened. He played Benedict’s Latin phrasing over and over again in his mind to be sure he’d understood.
Yes, a handful of popes had resigned before, most recently Gregory XII in 1415. The circumstances, however, were so wildly different as to make Benedict’s decision essentially unprecedented – a pope not facing foreign armies or internal schism who decided voluntarily to step aside, while continuing to live on Vatican grounds and pledging 'unconditional obedience' to whomever might succeed him.
Francis wins plaudits for his humble nature, but Benedict’s act was arguably the zenith of papal humility. He’s gone from infallibility to near-invisibility, having been photographed just four times since the resignation, most recently at a Jan. 15 musical recital marking his brother’s 90th birthday.
In the immediate wake of the announcement, the game was afoot to identify the 'real' reason Benedict quit. While the Pontiff cited age and health, some observers wondered if he was so demoralized by the surreal Vatican leaks affair - which ended in the arrest of his own butler as the mole - that he couldn’t go on. Others speculated it was a nebulous 'gay lobby' in the Vatican that had brought him down.
Most of that ferment circulated in the Italian press, where no conspiracy theory is ever too wild to get a hearing.
Whatever the reasons, we can see more clearly today how Benedict’s abdication prepared the way for the choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the new Pope.
How Benedict XVI set the stage for Pope Francis (The Boston Globe)