Exit Strategy

Benedict XVIThursday 28th February 2013 - by Kyl Chhatwal
“There were moments of joy and light but also moments that were not easy… there were moments, as there were throughout the history of the Church, when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping.” So said the recently-resigned Pope Benedict XVI at his final general audience on February 27, 2013, in St. Peter’s Square, Rome. As this is being written—Feb. 28—the Pope is on his last day on the job. 

At 8 pm this evening the Swiss Guards who stand as sentries at the Vatican quit their posts, a symbolic gesture indicating the position of Pope is now empty. As for Benedict himself, earlier today he was flown by helicopter to the papal summer retreat at Castelgandolfo south of Rome - close by the 18-holes course named Castelgandolfo GC. 

In April, he will return to the Vatican and spend the remainder of his days in peace in a convent, praying for the uncertain future of the Catholic Church.

The year 1415 was the last time a Pope—of the Roman line—resigned. That Pope was Gregory XII, who rather than quitting for personal reasons, did so in order to end one of the most destructive episodes of papal history, the Western (or Great) Schism.

The Schism began in 1377, when the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon, where it had sat since 1309, and where it had developed a reputation for corruption and degradation.

Forty years of uncertainty followed, when two Popes warred for legitimacy—one in Rome and one in Avignon—while the Western world was split down sectarian lines.

Finally, with the resignation of Gregory XII, a new Pope could be elected—Martin V—who all of Europe could get behind. The Schism was effectively ended, therefore, by Gregory’s sacrifice.

In his final address yesterday to the crowds at St. Peter’s, Benedict looked frail but determined in his decision. Earlier this month, when he announced his plans to resign, he cited personal reasons for doing so.

Now, however, with his surprising reflection that “it seemed that the Lord was sleeping ”during his papacy, Benedict may be hinting that the challenges facing the Church today— sex scandals, in-fighting among cardinals, relevance in a modern, post-religious world— are just as grave—or graver—as the ones Gregory XII faced six centuries ago.

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