Originally published 03/05/2013
Thomas Albert (Tal) Howard currently holds the Stephen Phillips Chair of History at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.“How heavy the papal mantle weighs,” wrote Dante in his Divine Comedy. The shepherding of some 1 billion Catholics is no simple business, so one cannot begrudge the frail Pope Benedict for stepping down. Given the rarity of such an event, the recent media frenzy is understandable. Much commentary has and will focused on Benedict’s legacy and the next papal election. But given that traditionally only death separates a pope from office, the moment also calls for remembrance of those popes who finished their office under, well, grimmer circumstances.The Apostle Peter, according to Catholics, was the first pope. Tradition claims he was crucified upside down in Rome because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Christ. Peter was the first of fourteen popes who are known or believed to have been martyred between the first and seventh centuries, the last being Martin I in 655. In light of the expansion of Christianity during this time, the church father Tertullian’s famous line that the “blood of martyrs is the seed of the church” is not beside the point.
Originally published 03/01/2013
David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.(CNN) -- On July 4, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Sulmona for his second visit to venerate the relics of his long-ago predecessor, Pope and St. Celestine V, who died in 1296. Few predicted then that just a few years later, Benedict and Celestine would be locked together in history as the two popes who retired, theoretically voluntarily, because of their age.Here is what Celestine wrote: "We, Celestine, Pope V, moved by legitimate reasons, that is to say for the sake of humility, of a better life and an unspotted conscience, of weakness of body and of want of knowledge, the malignity of the people, and personal infirmity, to recover the tranquility and consolation of our former life, do freely and voluntarily resign the pontificate."
Originally published 03/01/2013
Daniel Bornstein is Professor of History and Religious Studies and the Stella Koetter Darrow Professor of Catholic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the vice-president of the American Catholic Historical Association, and will assume the presidency in 2014. He is the author of The Bianchi of 1399: Popular Devotion in Late Medieval Italy and the editor of Medieval Christianity, volume 4 of A People’s History of Christianity.The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, announced for February 28, is an action virtually without precedent. No pope has resigned in modern times. No pope has ever resigned for reasons of failing health. And hardly any pope—only one, really—has ever resigned the papacy voluntarily. Early examples are shrouded in obscurity, but were all obviously constrained in one way or another. Pontian (230-235) is said to have resigned after being exiled: he evidently recognized that he could not function as bishop of Rome while performing slave labor in the mines of Sardinia. Marcellinus (296-304) had the misfortune to be bishop of Rome during the great persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian. He reportedly bent to imperial pressure and offered sacrifice to the pagan gods; and as a consequence, he was either deposed or forced to abdicate.
Originally published 02/22/2013
Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."(CNN) - Journalists have a habit of calling too many things "historic" - but on this occasion, the word is appropriate. The Roman Catholic Church is run like an elected monarchy, and popes are supposed to rule until death; no pope has stepped down since 1415.Therefore, it almost feels like a concession to the modern world to read that Benedict XVI is retiring on grounds of ill health, as if he were a CEO rather than God's man on Earth. That's highly ironic considering that Benedict will be remembered as perhaps the most "conservative" pope since the 1950s - a leader who tried to assert theological principle over fashionable compromise.
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