Three Popes Resigned

What became of them?

Most popes died while still in office. However, quite a few popes were deposed by one means or another, and at least a handful were assassinated or, in at least one case, lynched by a mob. Only four pontiffs certainly resigned, and one of them, Gregory XII, would have been deposed by the Council of Constance if he had not agreed to its demand for his resignation.

The most recent resignation was by Benedict XVI in 2013. He spent his first few weeks in retirement at the summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. Since then he has only occasionally appeared publicly. I was unable to determine where he is living now, but all of his public appearances have been in Italy. He probably has an apartment in Rome. Hardly anyone seems to care about him, but if you do, you can buy some memorabilia here.

There is no mystery about what happened to Pope Celestine V after he resigned. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, had him captured and imprisoned. He died shortly thereafter. You can read the fascinating details of his selection and his short pontificate here.

The first pope to resign was Benedict IX, back in 1045. My favorite pope was deposed the previous year, but he gathered his supporters together and regained the Throne of Peter. His second pontificate, however, lasted only a few months. He decided to resign in order to get married. As unlikely as this sounds, I have never read anyone who has posited an alternative explanation. In any case, he evidently negotiated a large sum of cash in exchange for turning the papacy over to his godfather, John Gratian, who became Pope Gregory VI.

At the insistence of the emperor, Gregory was deposed by the Council of Sutri and replaced with the emperor’s choice, who took the name of Clement II. Clement died after only a few months, and Benedict, who apparently never did get married, retook the Throne. Eventually the emperor managed to gather enough force in Italy to force Benedict to flee in July of 1048.

What happened to Benedict after that? It is hard to explain why no one seems to know. Luke, the hegumen (abbot), of the Basilian monastery at Grottaferrata, wrote a biography of one of his predecessors, St. Bartholomew the Younger. In it he asserted that Benedict came to the saint, repented, became a Basilian monk, and died at the monastery. A plaque commemorating these events was reportedly on display at the monastery (which still is in operation 1,000 years later), but the marker was destroyed in the allied bombings of World War II, or so the story goes. The Catholic Encyclopedia endorses this tale.

I have searched diligently for Hegumen Luke’s work, but I have been unable to locate it. It was translated into Italian a few years ago, but my efforts to obtain a copy were unsuccessful. The most complete write-up that I have discovered is in the book Deaths of the Popes by Wendy J. Reardon. Benedict IX’s period as Pope Emeritus is discussed on p. 81.

There were no fact-checkers in the Middle Ages. Is Luke’s story credible? I posed this very question to Santo Lucá, a scholar who has devoted a great deal of study to the documents at Grottaferrata. I discussed his unequivocal negative response in a previous entry.

If Benedict IX did not join the monastery, what happened to him? I wish that I had Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine. I would definitely set it to the middle of the eleventh century.

Ben Ten and the “Reformers”

Evaluating the Tusculan popes and the reformers who succeeded them.

Almost no one has even heard of Pope Benedict X. Pope Stephen IX had died in Florence on March 29, 1058. On April 4 a group of bishops met in Rome and elected John, the Cardinal-Bishop of Velletri, as the new pontiff. At the time there were no set rules for the selection of a new pope. The designation of the College of Cardinals as the body charged with papal elections did not come until later (although not much later). Benedict’s election was pretty much in line with established procedure at the time. The elections that were quite different from it were generally far less canonical. For example, Stephen’s three predecessors were all hand-picked by Emperor Henry III and rubber-stamped by councils sometimes held as far away from Rome as the German city of Worms. Furthermore, John was a rising star in the curia and was widely considered as being on the short list of papabili.

Benedict’s pontificate, however, had a few fatal flaws. In the first place he was a relative of the counts of Tusculum who had controlled the papacy for most of the eleventh century. The second was that the most influential figure in the so-called reform party, a young monk named Hildebrand, was in Germany at the time negotiating with Henry III’s widow, Agnes, who was the regent for her seven-year-old son. Allegedly Pope Stephen IX had asked that the election of his successor be postponed until Cardinal-Deacon Hildebrand could return.

Hildebrand did return, but he did not exactly rush back. Pope Benedict ruled until January of the following year. Not much is known about his pontificate, which is a pretty clear indication that it was a period of peace and relative tranquility. The same, by the way can be said of the pontificates of the other three Tusculan popes of the eleventh century. All told, these four men ruled Rome, the papal territories, and the Christian Church for about thirty-five years.

The cardinals met in Florence and on January 23, 1059, elected a man named Gerard from the Provence area of France. Hildebrand had arranged for Godfrey, the Duke of Lorraine, who was by far the most powerful man in Italy because of his marriage to Beatrice, the widow of the Margrave of Tuscany, to accompany them to Rome. Since Godfrey brought most of his army with him, Benedict was forced to flee, and Gerard was installed as Nicholas II. His first six months were largely devoted to employing Godfrey’s troops and some Normans who had been commissioned by Pope Stephen to hunt down Pope Benedict and his Tusculan supporters. A series of bloody battles ensued. Benedict fled first to a castle near Tivoli and then to the castle of the Count of Galeria, which was north of Rome. Eventually he was apparently captured, but accounts differ greatly as to what became of him after that.

Hildebrand also eventually was elected pontiff. He was known as Pope Gregory VII from 1073-1085.

There is no question that the reformers won a total victory over the influential noble families that had controlled the papacy in the early eleventh century. Reading the official records one can easily to picture them as a group of progressives who loved the Church so much that they felt obligated to do whatever was required to eliminate the corruption that had infested the papacy. In fact, Hildebrand and one other reform pope, Leo IX, are both canonized saints. Since only seven popes in the second millennium achieved that distinction (and two of those were named in the last year), this is quite unusual. For all that I know the two of them are sitting at God’s right and left hands (assuming that He has hands and that there are only two of them). I do know, however, that it is hard to think of any popes who were less successful than these two.

Leo, like the other German popes, spent almost no time in Rome. A cousin of Emperor Henry III, he almost immediately turned his attention to the Normans who controlled large swaths of southern Italy. The pontiff went to Germany and tried without successful to persuade the emperor to provide him with an army. He then hired a band of Swabian freebooters and led them back to Italy. After he combined this force with part of Godfrey’s contingent, he marched into Apulia, where he confronted the Normans and provoked them into the Battle of Civitate. When the dust settled, the papal forces had been routed, and the pope himself was in Norman hands. Although he was treated with respect and allowed to communicate freely with his subordinates, Pope Leo was held in Benevento almost until his death.

During his captivity Pope Leo dispatched some envoys to Constantinople to confront the patriarch. They came armed with forged documents that claimed that six centuries earlier the Emperor Constantine had bequeathed all of western Europe to St. Peter, whose vicar on earth was the Bishop of Rome. The westerners may have considered the documents to be genuine, but the story they told contradicted many events that were well documented in the east. When the patriarch refused to meet with them, the pope’s legates left a decree of excommunication on the high altar of the Hagia Sophia. This reckless act began the Great Schism between the Roman Church and the Greek Orthodox Church and its affiliates, which has lasted until this day.

So, Leo had two great legacies. He spent most of his time gathering together a Christian army that he used to attack a different Christian army. This one resulted in a lot of deaths and his own capture. The other was a committee armed with bogus documents that split the Christian Church in two irreparable (at least so far) pieces.

Gregory VII’s claim to fame was his attempt to wrest from Emperor Henry IV (a young man by this time) the power to invest bishops in imperial holdings. When the emperor refused, Gregory excommunicated him. The emperor, who was facing opposition in Germany, eventually repented and came to Gregory to ask for the lifting of the excommunication. For three long winter days he stood outside in the cold waiting for the pontiff to make up his mind. Eventually Gregory reinstated him.

Henry had to return to deal with a civil war in which the pope supported his opponent, Rudolph. When it appeared that Rudolph was winning, the pontiff again excommunicated Henry. The tide turned, however, and Henry not only solidified his hold in Germany. He also marched back into Italy and called a council that elected a new pope named Guibert. For a time there was a stalemate between Gregory’s forces and those of Henry/Guibert. Finally, in a desperate move Pope Gregory asked Robert Guiscard, the leader of the Normans to liberate him. He did, but the Normans also sacked Rome, inflicting much more damage than either the Goths or the Vandals had inflicted.

Gregory became a persona non grata in Rome. He spent the rest of his pontificate wandering as a beggar in southern Italy. His two hand-picked successors also had great difficulty even entering the city.

Here are a couple of questions that Church historians seldom ask. 1. Who were these “reformers”? 2. What did they want.

The answer to #1 is that almost all of them were Benedictine monks. The answer to #2 is a little trickier. Their platform included the elimination of simony (puchasing of religious offices) and the enforcement of celibacy among the clergy in the Church. By Hildebrand’s time they also championed the elimination of investiture by civil rulers like Henry IV. They have been almost uniformly portrayed as righteous people who took a corrupt papacy and returned it to the principles of the gospels. The word “portrayed” here is key. Almost everything known about these people was written by them and their supporters.

There is a different way to look at it. Before the reformers took over, the papacy was a local affair. The popes were generally elected by groups of local bishops. It is probably true that sometimes one noble family or another would spread enough cash around to influence the election. Outsiders would, however, only be called upon to help in dire circumstances when the very life of the papal states and the pope were in jeopardy. Seldom did any pope attempt to exert much influence outside of the papal states. Other regions chose their own bishops. There were no general rules for doing so. The popes seldom left their own territories.

The sex lives of clergymen was not high on the priority list of any of the Tusculan pontiffs. Pope Benedict IX, the third of the Tusculan pontiffs, was charged with many outrageous acts of sexual misconduct. His primary accuser was Peter Damian, the chief propagandist of the reformers, a man who never set foot anywhere near Rome during the time when Benedict IX was supposedly misbehaving.

Ethics aside, the reformers transformed the papacy in two ways. Their primary focus was the attempt to make the pope, once they controlled who wore the tiara, a prominent player on the European and, eventually, the world stage. Pope Urban II, who called the First Crusade, was a disciple of Hildebrand’s. In this they had mixed results. The First Crusade, although it caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of Christian lives, did result in the capture of Jerusalem. The other crusades – and there were many – were, by just about any measure, disasters.

They were much more successful in the other aspect, which was to change the rules so that they had access to power. In fact, the monks exerted dominance over papal elections long after the original purposes of the reformers were dim memories.

The question no one seems to ask is this: What did the Christians in Rome think? If I were a Roman, I would certainly have preferred the relative calm of the Tusculan pontiffs to the chaos and catastrophes of the reformers.

Two men, Boniface VII and Benedict X, were elected as pope and served as the unquestioned leader of the Church for a considerable period of time. Everyone considered them the pope. Both fled when threatened. In both cases the next pontiff who took the name (centuries later) assigned himself a number that was one more than the neglected pope.

Neither Boniface nor Benedict is on the official list of popes, and, take my word for it, there are dozens of popes with flimsier claims. All that it proves is that history is written by the winners.

Person of the Year?

Are words and symbols enough?

TimeSmallTwo popes had previously been named Time magazine’s Man of the Year. John XXIII was chosen for 1962, the year that he opened the Second Vatican Council and charged it with bringing the Church into the twentieth century, or at least the Age of Enlightenment. It was a dramatic decision. The Church had not convened an ecumenical council in a century, and that last one was called to rubber stamp decisions made by Pope Pius IX. In contrast, John XXIII had set in place a mechanism for listening to new ideas and implementing the best of them.

MOYSmallJohn Paul II was chosen for 1994. By that time the pontiff’s role in undermining the Communist governments in eastern Europe was becoming clear. He provided spiritual support for all of those movements, and he did much more than that for Poland. Many people still do not realize that the Vatican bank underwrote the political campaigns of the Solidarity Trade Union that eventually brought independence and democracy, not to mention the resurgence of Catholicism, to the Polish people.

Plenty of Catholics would argue that either or both of these two dynamic leaders were misguided (or maybe even tools of Satan), but no one could claim that they were ineffective or that their acts were of little consequence. Both pontiffs were masters at public relations, but they also knew how to convert their popularity into meaningful changes. They were actors.

Bestowing this title on Pope Francis seems to me comparable to giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama in his first year in office. I suspect that the people in Oslo would like a do-over on that one. The evaluations of both of these men seemed based not on what they had done so much as what their predecessors had done. Obama seemed ready to disavow Bush’s doctrine of preventive war, and Francis has at least eschewed the plodding mannerisms, luxurious accommodations, and red Prada shoes of Benedict XVI.

FrancisPope Francis has certainly made a number of startling statements and gestures. It is difficult to imagine any of his 263* predecessors uttering the words, “Who am I to judge?” His washing of the feet of others and, indeed, his choice of the name “Francis” were no doubt acts of symbolic importance.

But what has Pope Francis actually done? I read the Time article to see if I missed anything. OK; he has set up some commissions to look into some tricky issues, but that is the same tactic that Clement VII employed back in the sixteenth century to put off Henry VIII’s request for an annulment of his marriage. The only actual act that I could find was the elimination of the rank of “monsignor.” I suppose that that is something, but it did not go far in eliminating the hierarchy. There are still deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops, patriarchs, cardinals and who knows how many other levels. The curia may feel threatened, but it has not yet been attacked directly.

Don’t tell me that Pope Francis has done everything that he could be expected to do. He is the man. He can make judgments! For example, he could eliminate the ban on contraceptives tomorrow morning right after his two hours of prayer. There is no basis in scripture, and the reasoning is convoluted. Other popes have contradicted their predecessors on far weaker grounds.

Someday Pope Francis may be widely recognized as a great pope. I strongly feel that Time should have waited for that day and instead selected someone who sacrificed his livelihood if not his life to bring to light the shenanigans in and around the NSA.


* Pope Francis is #266 on the list of popes, but Benedict IX’s name is there three times

Choosing the Next Pope

Who will emerge from the next conclave?

In a short while pope #266 will be chosen. Who will it be? I have no idea, but I do know a few things about the way that he will be chosen.

The group that chooses the pope is known as the “Sacred College of Cardinals.” At one time the cardinals served as the link between the pope, who is the Bishop of Rome, and the suburbicarian dioceses of the surrounding countryside. In those days there were only a handful of cardinals, and their primary job was to meet with the pope and then return to the hinterlands to explain his policies to the people there. After the Roman Empire virtually abandoned Italy in the fourth century, the pope was forced to take on many civil responsibilities. From 800 through 1870 the pope was universally recognized as the monarch of a strip of central Italy that stretched from coast to coast. The number of cardinals increased, but they still served as advisers and legates.

There is, in fact, no limit on the number of cardinals, and there are no guidelines (that I know of) for the qualifications. All (or at least nearly all) of the current cardinals are bishops. That is a relatively recent development. In the nineteenth century, for example, Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli served as Secretary of State for Pope Pius IX, and he never even became a priest. One cardinal, a Portuguese prince, was only seven-years old when he received his red hat. He probably had to grow into it.

Nowadays, “cardinal” is considered a rank that allows the recipient to wear a variety of red garments and to vote for the pope. When a cardinal reaches the age of eighty, however, although he is still allowed to wear red, he can no longer vote for the pope. So, Pope Benedict will have absolutely no say in choosing his successor.

Well, I should probably amend that last statement to say that he will have no direct say in choosing his successor. Of the 117 electors, 67 were appointed by Pope Benedict. All of the others were appointed by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Since these two popes had remarkably similar ideas on how the Church should be managed, it seems inevitable that the next pope will not favor radically different notions.

The cardinals have been choosing the pope for about half of the history of the Church. That policy was implemented in 1059 by Pope Nicholas II. Perhaps the most surprising fact about the history of the papacy is that prior to 1059 there was no established method for selecting the pontiff! Some popes were elected by the Roman citizens, some were elected by the clergy, some were appointed by kings or emperors, and there is no record at all as to how quite a few assumed the office. It was not uncommon for more than one man to claim the papacy, and the matter was occasionally settled violently.

For centuries the papal election took place in whatever city the pope had perished. The electors now always meet in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican to choose the new pontiff. This process is called a conclave, which means “with a key.” The cardinals and a few attendants (Pope Pius XII’s attendants were nuns!) are locked in until they come to agreement. In the past this process has sometimes taken years! The longest one was held in Viterbo, starting in 1268. In 1271 the cardinals finally chose a man (not a priest) who at the time was taking part in the ill-fated Seventh Crusade, but not until after the impatient residents of Viterbo had hired carpenters to remove the roof of the room in which the cardinals had been locked.

All who participate in the conclave are sworn to secrecy. There is no official record of any of the votes or of the process by which the decisions are made. The official explanation is that the electors make themselves open to the Holy Ghost, and the third person of the Trinity inspires them to choose the best man. Some information, however, inevitably leaks out from one source or another. A Jesuit priest named Malachi Martin was a Vatican insider for several twentieth-century conclaves. He claimed that Cardinal Siri was elected pope at two different conclaves. Circumstances allegedly forced him to turn down the office on both occasions.

The essential requirements for being pope are remarkably simple. Each papabile must be a male Catholic, but not necessarily a priest. Many popes were not ordained as priests until after they were elected, and one, Adrian V, never did become one. Incidentally, this certainly qualifies as one of the most inexplicable piece of papal trivia. The pope is, by definition, the Bishop of Rome. Every bishop must be a priest. Therefore, most people would conclude that every pope had been a priest. The lesson to take home is that when it comes to the papacy there is an exception to almost every rule, even the tautologies.

There is no age requirement for the papacy. Pope John XII was a teenager when he was elected in the tenth century. His father made the arrangements (by paying off Roman nobility) for his ascendancy on his deathbed. Pope Benedict IX was also very young at his coronation (yes, the Pope until recently wore a crown called the “tiara”). One monk reported that this Benedict was only ten-years old, but historians today think that he was at least twice that.

I don’t expect the current College of Cardinals to choose another teenager. John XII was evidently murdered by a jealous husband who found him in bed with his wife. Benedict IX, who was accused of equally deplorable shenanigans, was driven from the papacy, regained it, and then sold the office to his godfather so that he could get married. After being jilted by his intended spouse, he eventually regained the throne once more, but he was finally overthrown in a second coup in 1048.

I guarantee that the new pope will not be a woman. The legend of Pope Joan is not taken seriously by any historians.

I doubt that the pope will be married, but it is possible. According to the Bible St. Peter, the first pope, had a wife. Not only was Pope Adrian II (867-872) married, but he lived with his wife after he became pope! A few other popes may have also been married. Many popes fathered children before they assumed the office. Pope Alexander VI had at least eight offspring whom he recognized, and he continued his promiscuous lifestyle as pope, although he traded in his long-time mistress for a newer model. His predecessor, Pope Innocent VIII, may have had twice that many kids. Life was different in fifteenth-century Rome.

The new pope will choose his own name. This tradition was started by the above-mentioned John XII, whose real name was Octavian. Prior to that time popes continued to use their given names. We will get some indication as to the pope’s intentions by his choice. If he chooses Pius, Gregory, or Paul, you can expect him to continue the conservative bent of the last few decades. If he chooses some other name, he may be making some other kind of statement. Benedict XVI, for example, chose his name as a tribute to the two previous Benedicts, who were intellectuals, Benedict XV during World War I and Benedict XIV in the eighteenth century.

No one has ever chosen the name Peter. That would be a striking statement that the new pontiff intended to return the Church to its roots. Don’t hold your breath.

Papal Resignations

Very few popes have ever resigned.

Pope Benedict XVI announced today that he will resign at the end of the month. This is indeed big news because very few of the 263 popes have resigned, and almost every one of those occasions was very controversial.

I have already encountered quite a bit of misleading and outright erroneous information concerning papal resignations. For example, the New York Times website quoted Donald Prudlo, associate professor of history at Jacksonville (AL) State University:

At the end of the 13th century, a very holy hermit named Peter was elected as Pope Celestine V in order to break a deadlock in the conclave that had lasted nearly three years. He was elected because of his personal holiness, sort of a unity candidate. And once he got there, being a hermit, not used to the ways of the Roman Curia, he found himself somewhat unsuited to the task, that it wasn’t just holiness but also some shrewdness and prudence that was also required. So within six months he knew that he was really unequal to the task, and so he gathered the cardinals together in a consistory, just as was recently done, a couple hours ago, and he announced to the cardinals his intention to resign.

Well, he got the time period right. God only knows why the cardinals selected this recluse in the first place. Living alone in a cave in the mountains, the man had eschewed human contact entirely for decades. A letter signed by the hermit had been sent to the conclave. It warned the cardinals that God would wreak vengeance on them and all Christianity if they did not forthwith select a new pope. The cardinals reportedly were so impressed with him that they set aside their previously irreconcilable political differences and endorsed Peter. That is the official account, but anyone who has studied the conclaves of that era would detect the odor of fish. Cardinals are not allowed to disclose the details of conclaves. So, no one can contest the official version.

To me the most annoying aspect of Professor’s Prudlo’s quote is the phrase “once he got there.” “There” must, of course, be Rome, of which the pontiff is by definition the bishop. However, Pope Celestine never once set foot in the Eternal City. Instead, King Charles II of Naples, who may well have been responsible for the letter, convinced His Holiness to take up residence in Castel Nuovo in his capital. Celestine was a total disaster as pope, probably the most incompetent and irresponsible pontiff ever, which is saying something. He kept no records and even bestowed the same benefice (income-generating office) on more than one person. At the instigation of the king, who was French, he appointed a large number of cardinals, most of whom were also French. Celestine never “announced to the cardinals his intention to resign.” Rather, Cardinal Benedict Caetani, drew up a letter of resignation and somehow induced the pontiff to sign it.

That is not the end of the story. Caetani was then swiftly elected as Pope Boniface VIII, and for no specific reason he cast the former pope in prison, which is where he died. I wrote about this episode here.

Very little is known of the popes of the first few centuries. The story has come down that Pope Pontian, who was exiled to the salt mines of Sardinia, might have resigned so that someone else could serve as the Bishop of Rome (whom no one thought of as the pope at the time). He might have done so, but then again some of his predecessors might also have hung up their miters. In fact, Clement I, the fourth pope, wrote in some of his letters that St. Peter himself had consecrated him (Clement) as Bishop of Rome. If so, then the first pope to resign must have been the very first pope, St. Peter!

The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415. What a story that was! At the time there were three claimants to the papal throne, and all three arguably had legitimate cases. One of them, John XXIII (no, not that John XXIII) called a council in Constance, a city next to a very deep lake in southern Germany, in order to resolve the situation. He badly misjudged the politics, however, and the council put him on trial for five felonies, deposed him, and threw him in prison. A second claimant, Benedict XIII, had been holed up in a corner of Spain for some time. He refused to come to the council and was also eventually deposed.

Pope Gregory also rejected the council’s summons. However, after the other two claimants had been deposed, he sent a letter through an emissary in which he expressed his willingness to resign. It is worth noting that he died before the council could agree on his successor, Pope Martin V. So, assuming that Pope Benedict lives to see his successor chosen, it will be the first time since the thirteenth century that the Church will have both a pope and a living ex-pope.

Did you notice anything strange in the above paragraph? Martin V was chosen, not by the college of cardinals but by the council, which included many clergy of much lower rank and was heavily influenced by Emperor Sigismund. The problem was that during the Western Schism, which had gone on for decades, there had been multiple papal claimants each supported by influential spiritual and civil leaders. Each pontiff had appointed cardinals loyal to him and had excommunicated those appointed by rivals. So, it was easier for everyone at Constance just to ignore canon law for a while. Hundreds of those who refused to go along found their way to the bottom of the lake. The surviving cardinals were reinstated, regardless of who had appointed them. What else could they do? Pope Martin himself had been appointed by the deposed and disgraced John XXIII.

I wrote about the Council of Constance here.

I cannot leave this subject without bringing up the one pope who certainly resigned of his own accord. Here is what Professor Prudlo had to say about Pope Benedict IX:

And then, at a rather low point in the Church’s history, Pope Benedict IX, in the 1040s, resigned and attempted to re-acquire the papacy several times. But according to good reports, he too died in penance at the monastery of Grottaferrata outside of Rome.

In point of fact, no one disputes the fact that Pope Benedict IX sold the papacy to his godfather, John Gratian, who became Pope Gregory VI. At the time Benedict had been pontiff for more than a decade, but he was still a young man, and he wanted to get married. However, his prospective father-in-law would only approve if Benedict abdicated. Yes, some popes have been married, but no pope that we know of ever got married while he was pontiff.

After Gregory had been deposed by the emperor, a jilted Benedict managed to acquire the papacy again for a short while. The “good reports” that he retired to Grottaferrata really amount to the word of one monk. Via e-mail I personally asked Santo Lucà, a professor at La Sapienza who is probably the world’s expert on the history of Grottaferrata, whether he thought that the pope had retired there. His answer: “Assolutamente no!

* * *

So why have so few popes resigned? The primary answer is that from 800 until 1870 the pope was the monarch of central Italy. Most of the popes of that period amassed great amounts of wealth and spread it among family members. They did not resign for the same reason that very few kings and queens have abdicated — they knew that they had the best gig in town. Furthermore, unlike kings and queens, the popes had very limited control over their successors. In many cases the successor had little respect for the work of the predecessor, and the popes knew that. The best way for a pope to protect his historical legacy was to stretch it out as long as possible. When the duties became too much for an aging pontiff, he customarily assigned the most important tasks to a relative, usually a nephew.

Since 1870 the popes have been too busy to resign. Pius IX devoted himself to overthrowing the Italian (and to an extent American) government in order to reclaim his territory. Leo XIII was busy with his poetry, his snuff, his movies, and his cocaine-laced wine. Pius X fought against modernism. Benedict XV fought for peace. Pius XI and Pius XII had to confront the Nazis, the fascists, and the communists. John XXIII (yes, that John XXIII) tried to drag the Church into the twentieth century. Paul VI tried to smooth the feathers that had been ruffled by his predecessor. John Paul I only lasted a month. John Paul II worked to destroy communism and to restore conservative traditions.

Only Benedict XVI had no clear mission. It is a little-known fact that he had asked to resign when John Paul II was still alive. Why are people surprised that an 86-year-old man would want some rest?