Pope Benedict XVI did something very unusual — he resigned and stepped down of his own accord after serving for just eight years. Why did he step down so early? Now that The Two Popes is airing on Netflix, the question is being asked again. Here is what you need to know.
He Resigned for Age-Related Health Reasons & Later Said God Led Him To Do So
On February 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) officially resigned after announcing his decision on February 11, 2013. He was the first pope to voluntarily resign from that office since Celestine V all the way back in 1294 and Pope Gregory XII in 1415 to end a “Great Western Schism,” CNN reported. Typically a Pope stays in the position until he dies.
Pope Benedict said that he was resigning because old age was causing his health to decline. He was 85 (about to turn 86 in April). He said he would continue serving by praying. In a statement, he said: “my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” CNN reported at the time.
Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, had said that there was no pressure on the Pope to resign and he didn’t have any specific health issues. He had a battery in his pacemaker that had been replaced a few months ago in a routine procedure, CNN reported. But his reason for leaving was just overall “deterioration and weakness in his body,” Lombardi said.
You can read the full statement that Pope Benedict issued about his resignation here. He wrote, in part:
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. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005…”
At the time, it was said that no one had expected the announcement, The Guardian reported. There was a lot of speculation about why he resigned, The Guardian later reported. One reporter from Germany said he looked exhausted, thin, and appeared to be blind in one eye and going deaf. There were also rumors that he might have been depressed.
Later, Benedict said that he resigned because God told him to do so, The Guardian reported. He said that he didn’t hear God’s voice or see an apparition, but it was some type of “mystical” experience where God gave him an “absolute desire” to step down and focus his life on prayer. It was a months-long experience and not something that happened quickly. He said the “charisma” of Pope Francis helped him better understand why God wanted him to step down.
His successor, Pope Francis (formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio) was selected on March 12, 2013.
Pope Benedict has remained in Rome as Emeritus Pope, Irish Examiner reported. At the time he said he would stay “hidden from the world,” but he still made statements, met with cardinals, lived in the Vatican walls, and spoke publicly from time to time, Vanity Fair shared. According to CNN, though, until April 2019 he rarely left his monastery.
He returned to the public spotlight in April 2019 when he published a 6,000-word essay, The New York Times shared. He later reaffirmed with the media that Pope Francis is the only Pope.