598. That's how many years it's been since the last Pope left the throne via resignation as opposed to, you know, dying. But in these strange times, we once again sail into the unknown as this morning came the shocking news that Pope Benedict XVI would be calling it a papacy at the end of this month after a little less than eight years in the office.
The Pope announced his decision on the Vatican Radio website this morning after conferring with his Cardinals on the matter. The 85-year-old leader to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics said that he's stepping down due to health reasons. "After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry," the Pope said.
Recognizing the situation, The Pope also said that he was, "well aware of the seriousness of this act," but that his strength "has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
For the record, the last pope to retire from the job was Gregory XII in 1415.
It's a tough time to be Pope for sure, and it would be a tough enough time for any man, even one younger than the artist formally known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Catholicism ain't what it once was, and even though the faith is still over a billion strong, a lot of people are turning their backs on a Church that's still by and large discriminatory to women and gays, while covering-up with incredible Machiavellian skill the abuse of several of its priests. In other words, it's a hard institution to put your faith in these days.
But those are long-term challenges. In the short term, the church will be Pope-less during its busiest season: the Easter month. The College of Cardinals is hoping to convene sometime in mid-March to choose Benedict's successor, who will have just a few weeks to get settled before leading Catholics in Easter services.
There's been a lot of jokes at the expense of the papacy this morning, one of my favourites on Twitter being that between the discovery of Richard III's remains and the first resignation of a Pope in centuries that this was a big week for the 1400s. For me, there is an interesting question here: what does a retired pope do with himself? Does he move someplace warm and play golf? Does he take up a small, unstressful ministry somewhere? Does he get a small room in the Vatican and become the "Pope Emeritus," taking meetings and appointments that the new Pope's too busy for?
I guess we'll find out soon.
Also, for more reading on the traditions and rules for selecting the next Pope, The Guardian has an interesting article you can read.