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Today in history… world surprised as the Pope resigns

12:00am | & Lifestyle

FULFILLING an announcement that took the world by surprise, Pope Benedict XVI resigned as head of the Catholic Church on February 28th, 2013.

In doing so he became the first Pope for 600 years to resign rather than die in office. Even the previous one, Pope Gregory XII, had been forced to resign under pressure from opponents. The last time a Pope had resigned on his own initiative was in 1294, almost 720 years previously.

Pope Benedict announced his unexpected decision in a speech given to his cardinals on February 10th, telling them it was because of “a lack of strength of mind and body” due to his advanced age. His decision was made public the following day, shocking Catholics around the globe, and his resignation took effect six years ago today, on February 28th.

He had served as Pope for just under eight years, since April 2005, elected following the death of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. But at the age of 78 he was the oldest person to be elected pope for 275 years and might have taken on the role with some reluctance, due to his age and existing health problems.

Before taking the papal name of Benedict, he was Joseph Ratzinger, a native of Bavaria in Germany who was ordained a priest in June 1951. He became a highly regarded writer on religious matters, serving as professor of theology at several German universities before being appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. Other senior church posts followed and by the turn of the new millennium he was emerging as one of the favourites to become the next pope. When he was elected, he had already served longer as a cardinal than any other pope for almost 300 years.

He accepted his election as the will of God, but he had already tried numerous times to retire and devote more time to writing. Having passed the normal retirement age for bishops (75), he had submitted his resignation three times, but stayed on in his post at the request of Pope John Paul II, who valued his service to the church. His health was already quite frail, having suffered a minor stroke in 1991, from which he recovered.

Early in his own papacy, Pope Benedict predicted his would be a short reign, leading to concerns about his health. In May 2005, just a month after his election, the Vatican announced he had suffered another mild stroke and was taking medication for an age-related heart condition. It later emerged that he had been fitted with a heart pacemaker some years before, while still a cardinal.  In July 2009 he was briefly hospitalised after falling and breaking his wrist.

But the world was used to elderly and physically frail popes and in the modern age all of them had died in office, some having suffered poor health for months and even years before their death. So it still came as a big surprise when Pope Benedict announced his decision to resign. According to the Vatican, the timing of the decision was not due to any specific illness, but to “avoid the exhausting rush of Easter engagements”.

On the day of his resignation Pope Benedict was 85 years and 318 days old, making him the fourth oldest person ever to hold the office. Since most people generally retire from work around two decades earlier, few could begrudge him his decision. It was announced he would be given the title of ‘Pope Emeritus’ – meaning the former holder of an office who has retired but is allowed to retain the title as an honour. This convention is common in academia, especially for university professors.

In addition, he would retain his papal name, continue to dress in the white cassock and be referred to as “His Holiness”. However, he returned his ‘Fisherman’s Ring’ – an official part of the regalia worn by the pope and traditionally used to imprint the wax seal on official papal documents. It is usually destroyed by Vatican officials on the death of a pope to prevent documents being counterfeited, with a new ring made for each pope.

Since his resignation, Pope Emeritus Benedict has lived in a former monastery in the Vatican Gardens near St Peter’s, where he vowed to continue serving the church “through a life dedicated to prayer”. Now aged 91, he continues to write and advise on church matters and has made occasional public appearances alongside his successor, Pope Francis, though mainly close to home.

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