On 29 April 2009, Pope Benedict made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Pope St Celestine V, the saintly pope who abdicated in 1294 and retired to a monastery.
The pilgrimage caused a bit of murmuring on the blogosphere. Why would Benedict visit that pope? Sure he was canonised, but he was removed from the calendar in the 1960s. Could Benedict be contemplating abdication?
Benedict concluded his visit to Celestine’s tomb by leaving his pallium there. The pallium is a woollen vestment worn on the shoulders of metropolitan bishops. Receiving the pallium is an important part of the pope’s own installation ceremony. Pope Benedict has worn a few over the years. But the one he left with St Celestine is the long pallium — the one of ancient design — which he received when he became pope:
On 4 July 2010, the Pope made another pilgrimage — this time to some relics of Pope Celestine not far from Rome. More eyebrows were raised. More murmuring echoed through the blogosphere.
In retrospect, it seems that Benedict fostered this devotion to St Celestine precisely because the possibility of his own abdication played on his mind. In contrast, Pope John Paul II repeatedly ruled out the option, when he was pressed in interviews. “There is no place in the Church for a pope emeritus,” I think he once said.
Benedict has always sung a different tune. In Light of the World, the book-length interview published in 2010, he said this:
If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of carrying out the duties of his office, then he has the right, and in some circumstances the obligation, to resign.
And now he has resigned. In his statement to the cardinals, he appealed to his failing health:
. . 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 barque 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.
Whatever his motives, I think we can be confident of the Pope’s discernment. He’s probably prayed about this for years. His abdication is obviously not an act of infallibility, but I am personally convinced that he has discerned the will of God wisely and prayerfully.
It behooves us to imitate Benedict’s prayerfulness. We can pray for him obviously: for his health, and for his future. And we can pray for the cardinals: that they attend to the Holy Spirit and elect a worthy successor. And we can pray for ourselves: that we are filled with filial love for our new Holy Father.