Pope Benedict XVI, age 85, said he will resign Feb. 28. The last pope not to die in office was in 1415. What’s the significance of today’s surprise announcement?
Pope Benedict XVI’s health has been visibly declining, but it seems no one expected his announcement Monday that he would resign and that a new pope would need to be selected by a conclave of the College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.
His predecessor, John Paul II, had been in declining health for years before his death (as have many other popes over the centuries), but the last pope not to die in this lifetime office was Gregory XII on July 4, 1415, due to a dispute over papal succession. His abdication was followed by a two-year interval without a valid pope elected.
This time, however, the next pope could be elected quickly, possibly in mid-March. But there don’t seem to be any clear front-runners for the position. It is possible Benedict himself will choose to play a role in influencing the choice of the next pope, though the political aspects of the Roman Catholic Church are complex and secretive.
The pope’s announcement
Here are excerpts of the pope’s announcement published by Vatican Radio:
“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. …
“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, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is. …
“And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.”
Most non-Catholics reject the claim that the pope is the successor of the apostle Peter and believe praying to Mary is not biblical. But many people feel compassion for a man beaten down by age, ill-health and difficult burdens.
The pope’s burdens
Many commentators have noted the heavy burden of scandals and challenges the pope has faced during his nearly eight-year tenure.
In addition to the priest sex abuse scandals and a scandal involving leaks of secret information by the pope’s butler, the pope has also carried the burden of administering the Roman Catholic Church’s massive hierarchy for the billion-plus Catholics around the world.
Who will be the next pope?
Speculation on who will be the next pope is all over the map—literally. Many would like to see a pope from the areas where Catholicism is strong and growing, like South America or Africa. But after a Polish and a German pope, the large Italian contingent of cardinals is likely to want the responsibility to return to one of their own.
The chances of having a European pope are still very strong. Though much of European society presents a godless face these days, there seems to be a longing among the Catholic faithful for the kind of unity and power Europe experienced under great leaders crowned by the pope, like Charlemagne. And many Catholics would be happy to see a more charismatic pope similar to Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II.
The inner workings of politics in the Vatican remain hidden, so it is very hard to predict who the next pope might be. But it is important to watch.
Biblical significance of the papacy
Bible prophecy outlines great movements of history in both the political and religious realm. The book of Revelation in particular, read in conjunction with Old Testament prophecies, describes a European power, associated with a powerful church, that has had many revivals through the centuries.
The leader of the end-time revival of the political and military force will be guided by a charismatic religious leader. These two individuals, and the people they lead, are predicted to play a major role in events leading to the return of Jesus Christ.
The historical and future fulfillments of these prophecies are described in the article “What Is Babylon?” The fulfillment of these prophecies will powerfully affect our lives today, so we encourage you to read the article and examine the scriptures in your own Bible.