When we think about the election of a pope we automatically think of a ceremony that follows the death and funeral of the last pope. Today, however, marks a historic moment as for the first time in 600 years a pope has resigned. Pope Benedict XVI announced earlier this month that he would be resigning from office due to his waning strength that he felt would impeded upon his ability to carry out his duties as pontiff and the head of the Catholic Church. Many were shocked by the resignation and it has left the church in untested waters. Because the last pope to resign did so 600 years ago, no one is quite sure what this all means, what will happen after the resignation, and how the Catholic Church will deal with it.
Historically, most popes have reigned until their death with only nine resigning in the papacy’s entire history. The resignation of popes does not have an exactly august history; many of the previous resignations were associated with violence, coercion, and scandal—all the juicy stuff of history. For example Gregory XII (1406-1415 CE) resigned in order to settle the disputes raised by the schism of the Church and Celestine V (1294 CE) resigned because he was imprisoned by his successor. Benedict XVI is also not the first Benedict to resign, Benedict the V (964 CE) having been forced to resign by Emperor Otto I. Of course, this current resignation is not without scandal either. Benedict the XVI has overseen many controversies and scandals that have tested the Roman Catholic Church.
Arguably the largest scandal faced by Pope Benedict has been the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church to its core. The handling of this travesty has left a bitter taste in the mouth of many around the world and has without a doubt damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church. While abuse by priests is a terrible thing in of itself, the response from the authorities of the Catholic Church in the face of these acts has been less than inspiring to most. Furthermore, there have been charges of fraud against the Vatican Bank, a security breach in which the pope’s own butler stole confidential papers, and a new slew of accusations by the Italian media reporting sex scandals involving gay prostitutes against high-ranking members of the Church. Faced with all of this, it is no wonder the health of the pope is waning.
Benedict himself has never been an entirely popular pope. Unlike his successor, John Paul, Benedict lacks a certain charisma and charm. It seems fortunate for him, that the office inherently has the aura that it does. Benedict is a bookish, professorial person who is more inclined towards discussions of theology than he is the statesmanship and ability to inspire that usually is associated with the papacy. During his reign, he’s alienated both Jews and Muslims and has had a difficult time steering the Church in a modern world. Of course it doesn’t help that he slightly resembles Darth Siddious from Star Wars.
Whatever the case, the act of Benedict XVI changes everything and breaks with 600 years of precedent and sets an entirely new standard for popes who come after him. While by law, the pope is allowed to resign should he feel he is unable to carry out his duties, none have followed through with resignation, until today. So what happens next for the Church and the pope?
Pope Benedict the XVI whose Christian name is Ratzinger—a name that makes you glad that pope’s select new names upon ascending to the office—will be known as “pope emeritus,” will continue to wear white, but change from his red stylish shoes to a more humble brown, and will retire to the convent of Mater Ecclesiae on the Vatican grounds. By remaining on Vatican grounds, the Pope Emeritus will be immune to facing any criminal charges brought by nations against him for the various sex abuse scandals.
The Church on the other hand will begin their election of a new pope. During the vacancy of the office of the pope, known as “sede vacante” the camerlengo will run the day-to-day operations of the Vatican while overseeing its property. The powers of the pope, however, will remain in limited fashion with the College of Cardinals. In the past, the camerlengo would have to announce the death of the pope which involved striking the head of the pontiff three times with a small silver hammer while calling out. This ceremony has been done away with in modern times and with Pope Emeritus Benedict still alive, there will be no need for the announcing. Next the seal and ring of the pope is broken, ceremonially marking the end of the reign and for the practical purpose of avoiding forgeries. The coat of arms of the Vatican is then changed from the crossed keys and crown to include an umbrella known as the umbraculum to symbolize the camerlengo’s stewardship. Then 15 days after the death, or in this case the resignation, the College of Cardinals is called together by the Dean and elections are held in the Sistine Chapel. The College of Cardinals turn in all cellphones and means of communications with the outside world and are sealed in Conclave with the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations calling out “Extra omnes” to expel all others and seal in the College. The election involves writing their votes and placing them in an urn with prayers. The tallies are then added up and burned. A 2/3rd vote is usually required to elect a pope. The burning of the ballots emits a smoke that announces to the outside world if the Conclave has made an election. Black smoke emitted from the chimney means that no consensus has been reached where as white smoke means a new pontiff has been elected.
Many of the College of Cardinals have been appointed by the then Pope Benedict the XVI and so his influence is likely to sway the election to some degree. Notable contenders are: Cardinal Angelo Scolo the Milanese Archbishop and popular intellectual, Cardinal Ouellet the Canadian conservative theologian, Cardinal Peter Appia Turkson from Ghana and the head of the Pontifical Council For Social Justice, and the Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri. Who is elected will determine the course of the Church. There has been a move in modern times to break the hegemony of the European Popes, especially given that th largest population of Catholics are now in Latin America. Whether we will see the ascent of a Latin American Pope or African Pope has yet to be seen.
After the College of Cardinals has elected the pope and he has accepted the office, he elects a new name, dresses in his pontifical garments, and is presented to the world with the announcement:
Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum:
Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,
Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem [surname],
qui sibi nomen imposuit [papal name].
(“I announce to you a great joy:
We have a Pope!
The Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord,
Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church [surname],
who takes for himself the name [papal name].”)
During this entire time the Pope Emeritus will be in in retirement in the Castel Gondolfo and return after the election to Mater Ecclesiae. While, officially, not retaining any of his former powers, one must wonder how much of his influence will still be felt given how many cardinals he has appointed and the respect he’s earned as an ultra-conservative theologian.
Whether the Catholic Church is ready for it or not, the resignation has taken place and it marks a new chapter in the history of the Holy See with a new precedent set for future popes. What the Catholic Church does from here will determine its future in an ever-changing world. Will they elect a new, younger, more charismatic pope, or will they go with another ultraconservative? Given that the precedent has been set for resignation, a younger pope is feasible. Will the election mark the end of the European hegemony over the papacy as the Catholic Church acknowledges its faithful in Latin America, or will they continue with tradition? How will the new pope guide the Church to deal with the sex abuse scandals, with epidemics like AIDS and the controversy of contraceptives? How will the new pope restore relations with Jews and Muslims? All these questions have yet to be answered and face the new pontiff. A new chapter has begun and the pen is in the hands of the College of Cardinals.