Benedict XVI the Precedent Setting Pope

The Catholic Church has a tradition of selecting elderly “caretaker popes” who end up being “history making popes.” When Pope John XXIII suddenly called the Second Vatican Council the church was turned upside down.

When Benedict XVI created the Anglican Ordinariate he made history. Never before had a new structure been established to allow Protestants to have their own “church within the Church”. Benedict used the new media as no other Pope had done, churned out brilliant Biblical studies making clear that he was writing as a theologian and not the successor of Peter. Building on the legacy of Bl. John Paul, he embraced the reforms of the Second Vatican Council at the same time showing us how tradition can continue without turning back the clock. All of these, in one way or another, are great surprises.

Now he surprises us again. Not for six hundred years has a pope stepped aside. He has done so quickly and unexpectedly. While his decision cannot have been sudden. The sudden effectiveness–he will be gone within a few weeks–is brilliant. There is scarcely time for the world’s cardinals to book their plane tickets–much less to be politicking and planning how to get the white soutane. The press has not had the chance to be picking papabile for months. The Vatican insiders have not had time to get “their man” in place.

It is all going to be very exciting to watch. The questions are bubbling up in everyone’s mind. No doubt the conspiracy theorists will suspect skullduggery at the Vatican. Was he pressured to go? Is there a scandal lurking that he cannot cope with? Is there a secret we don’t know that is about to destroy the Catholic faith? Did he make a terrible mistake and feel the only thing to do was resign? They will be pointless.

Other more ordinary questions arise: Will there be a retirement ceremony of some kind? How will he go? Will he simply step into a helicopter and be whisked away? Where will he live? What title will he have? What will he do?  I predict he will retire to a quiet monastery and complete obscurity. Whatever happens he goes with the affection, prayers and gratitude of his whole flock, for stepping into a role he did not wish for and for serving so brilliantly as a humble laborer in the Lord’s vineyard.

For comment by William Fahey go here.

For my article “Good Bye to Benedict” for Aleteia go here.

For my article for the Washington Post on what a papal retirement looks like go here

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  • Bryan

    Wow. He was elected the spring in which I had decided to convert. His writings were nearly the first things I read during the process — _Introduction to Christianity_ being he sort of introduction that really needs to be read more than once, and after a couple years of thinking about Christianity. But also his little book about Genesis — a collection of homilies on the subject — I’ve been thinking about that for years. Now this, which I agree plays the bureaucracy so well; amazing. There is a very short list of Popes who have has such an effect in such a short time. Very short list.

  • Fr. Tom S.


  • Shoe

    Amen. He has made such a positive impact on the church I can not help but to trust this difficult decision.

  • Eileen M.

    “I wish to make an ANNOUNCEMENT….. I regret to announce that… this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!” Brilliant!

  • vox borealis

    My main concern is that this will be used as a club by critics against later popes. Any time something goes wrong, or some scandal erupts, or there is some perceived grievance, the usual sources will start clamouring for the pope to resign…and then they’ll cite Benedict XVI as a precedent. I can just see it now, the Hans Küng types invoking Benedict to beat up some future pope and push for his resignation.

    I’m really torn. There was a real value, I thought, to John Paul II remaining pope until natural death, as a witness against the culture of death. Plus, I really like Benedict XVI and there is so much unfinished business, it seems.

    I guess we can only trust in the Holy Spirit.

  • Amy H

    ” Whatever happens he goes with the affection, prayers and gratitude of his whole flock, for stepping into a role he did not wish for and for serving so brilliantly as a humble laborer in the Lord’s vineyard.” Amen, Father! I dearly love our Holy Father and am saddened that he is resigning; he has been such a rock of strength for the Church here on earth. He will always be in my prayers.

  • Skay

    May the Lord have mercy on us.

  • Miriam

    This Easter will be my fifth as a Catholic. He has always been my Pope.

    I will miss him so much.

  • Sonja Maierhauser

    Fr. Longenecker,
    congratulations on being a very current Catholic blogger. So glad to see your wholesome, grounding comments online regarding this historic event. Good to have you around!

  • paul Rodden

    It seems that, in July 2009 when he left his Pallium on the tomb of Pope Celestine V, it wasn’t an empty gesture, even back then…
    But he’s never been a Father who’s made empty gestures…

  • Richard M

    Hello Fr. Longnenecker,

    “I predict he will retire to a quiet monastery and complete obscurity.”

    That seems exactly like the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from Joseph Ratzinger.

    Lord have mercy on him, and grant Your Church a worthy successor.

  • anne

    I can totally relate to why Benedict resigned. The two reasons he gave in his letter were the rapid changes in today’s world and being shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith. I too as well as many others feel we do not have the strength to adequately fight this battle…whether in our workplace, family or parish. I am in my early sixties but faithful Catholics of all ages are feeling just like our beloved Pope. Everyday we are discounted, marginalized, criticized, and feel the sadness.

  • Mr. Two Cents

    After my first wondering about how will the “Year of Faith” thrive, or how will Benedict XVI’s more traditional philosophy survive, I quickly remembered that whoever is currently Pope is also currently the Chair of St. Peter. And because the Vicar of Christ is inspired by the Holy Spirit then I am content that Pope Benedict XVI’s work will indeed carry-on in the path intended by Jesus Christ no matter who is the replacing Vicar. So then, I applaud Pope Benedict’s courage and am confidently consoled by the wisdom of the Church.

  • polycarped

    Very sad for us. But thank God for the gift of Pope Benedict to the Church and to the world and we must now trust in God’s providence once again.

  • Michael

    I am distressed and disapointed. Germans are so obsessed with youth, more so then Americans. I fear that something or someone nasty has been whispering in his ear. You are correct that he goes with our affection and prayers, and with faith we trust that as God as permitted this terrible thing to come to pass, he will send the Holy Spirit to elect the successor.

  • Amanda Therese

    It was shortly after Pope Benedict XVI became Pope that I returned to the Church. He is the first Pope I embraced as my spiritual Father, and my heart breaks to be losing him. May God grant his days of retirement be fruitful and peaceful.

    Now I think we should fast and pray for the upcoming conclave.

  • Steve Brown

    Great post. Bravo! Keep us updated.

  • Kirk

    Not knowing it hasn’t been done for 600 years, but for some strange reason I have always felt he would do this. The reason he is humble and know the Church needs to have a strong voice behind Her. I also think by him witnessing Blessed Pope John Paul, it is something he did not think was a good thing to happen in this day and age. Our Church is finally coming back to an orthodox mantle and She can’t afford to be slowed down. By him steeping down it has ignited a fire and soon we’ll have a new younger stronger and more charismatic pope.

  • Dave

    Thank you for a wonderful 8 years, Papa Benedict! You were one of the most brilliant Popes in history and I personally appreciate the great work you did at appointing Bishops.

  • Brendan Doyle

    I think his timing is perfect in that it’s short notice and unexpected, replicating a sudden death. According to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Pope Benedict will return to being known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once he has stepped down as pope. He will be addressed as his eminence or Cardinal Ratzinger. I doubt this will be the case. I think he he will be a retired bishop and styled as such. But I doubt he will ever speak or write publically again.

  • The Egyptian

    May his soul be content, his heart light, Bless him for all time, a great man.
    I believe after reading much about him as a man, he never really wanted the job, never sought it, yet humbly accepted and did his best, and wonderfully so. I also believe that his witness of his close friend JPII’s decline and death weighs on him, being he is a very private man he does not want the attention and speculation
    I pray we are presented with a new pope with a strong hand and a warm heart for I feel that Benedict has been battling factions in the “Vatican” and the church as a whole that did not like his ideas, the resistance to the Old Rite, the dragging of feet so to speak in the acceptance of the Anglican Ordinate and I really do believe a systematic effort to kill the unification of the SSPX. Hopefully the new Pope will have the courage and will to bring factions in line and do as he wishes and maybe as he orders. Benedict preferred to lead by example which works for those who are willing to follow but sometimes a shepherd must use his staff to discipline the wayward sheep so to speak. (spoken as a dairy farmer who faces the not so willing to be led on a daily basis)
    May he be content and face his declining years peacefully and content

  • Tim Youree

    Is this not sound military strategy? The war has intensified. The General knows this. This Easter will be special. The Church is unstoppable. Right?

  • Shawnbm

    I read today another article from a poster on this website that ended with him having been known as pontiff, cardinal, bishop, priest, deacon, seminarian and young Bavarian Catholic … and that he now just wishes to be called Joseph as he deals with advancing age. (I have paraphrased and embellished a bit). I like the thought of that and certainly feel this Pope has been too much maligned in the secular world since his election. His books on Jesus show us that he is first a Catholic Christian who loves Jesus, His Mother and the Holy Catholic Church. May he know peace and tranquility as he enters the sunset of his life after his resignation.

  • Ryan M.

    I’m so very grateful for our “German Shepherd.” May God grant him many blessings for his race well-run!

  • fidethyo

    there is nothing that is about to destroy the church of Rome because the church of Rome exist not by human machination but by Divine decree.

  • La Gallina

    You make great points, Father. But at this moment I feel scared, heart-broken, and I miss him already.

  • Jay

    How long until liberals the world (especially in the media) start speculating if the new Pope will allow female priests, contraception, abortion etc…

  • bill bannon

    He is teaching us all by example that when the day comes for us to not drive a car due to decreased capacity in our last years, then we should let go of that driving office so to speak….to protect all. He is a wonderful outside the box Father in doing what he is doing….teaching to the end. Christ descended from the Trinity to earth….a step down in a sense. Benedict is doing the same thing in a way and teaching us all by it.

  • Eileen M.

    Hey, man! You didn’t credit me in your 10:51 tweet! C’mon, you’re bigger than that…..

  • Tanya Wersinger

    We love our Papa though, just keep praying for him and for his successor. Thanks for the post Father Longenecker, always a good one:)

  • Pat H

    That’s what Pope Celestine hoped to do too, but he wasn’t really allowed to. His successor needed his intellect and kept him in Rome.

    It’s my prediction that Pope Benedict will find himself following Pope Celestine in these regards as well.

  • richard

    May God grant him peace the remainder of all his days and we thank God that He chose him to shepherd us these last 8 years. May the Lord grant wisdom during the entire upcoming process and may our new leader on Earth stand firm against rampant secularism, abortion, and cafeteria catholicism. In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN!

  • MaryJoD

    “However, 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…” The ‘reasons’ are not HIS reasons to ‘renounce’ the Office, it is the world that is subject to the changes and it is the world that is shaken by questions of deep relevance. He has no problems with his faith or with the changes, he just does not think and feel that he has the necessary strength to govern. I think he has done this because he feels that someone who is stronger physically and mentally is needed by the Church. It is part of his Office to make sure that the barque of St. Peter is governed with a strong and steady mind and body. I think that only those of us who would like to think that we are just as capable in our 70′s and 80′s but wisely realize that our faculties – particularly of body but also of mind – are not as they used to be. It is wisdom – not frailty of faith – that has brought him to this point. And I applaud him. Though I will miss his unerring strong faith in the Eternal Pastor. He can dedicate himself – as we all should – to pray and suffer for the Church when that is all that we can do effectively. His desire for a smooth transition is evident. Our duty now is to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the Conclave to choose according to the Will of the Father.

  • Yae

    I started to cry as I have loved him so and still do. But in his own time and with much prayer, our dear Holy Father waited on the Lord and on St. Celestine to assist him with his final decision. It is being reported our Holy Father may have early signs of Congestive Heart Failure. As a nurse, that is serious and can tax one’s vitality and energy and with the tremendous responsibilities of the office, I understand.
    Ah! I will miss him but thank God he will still be with us praying for the Church and her many sons and daughters. I love you dear Holy Father and though I am in tears I look forward to your prayers.
    P.S. I remember when he was newly elected, he did say his papacy would not be a long one. I have always remembered that and now this…

  • Jim J. McCrea

    I think the difference between John Paul II and Benedict is that Benedict was a technician (an excellent one at that) and once incapacitated to fill his technical roles, had to resign. John Paul II’s ministry was through his persona mainly, and when that persona became ill, he could use it to show the world the suffering Christ.

  • Shanee Adams

    Amen Amen!

  • Emmett

    An interesting prophecy attributed to Bl. Tomasuccio de Foligno – the “Worthy Shepherd Prophecy” foretold that the Worthy Shepherd/Angelic Pope would be elected by “about twelve years shall the millennium have passed”:

    “By about twelve years shall the millennium have passed when the resplendent mantle of legitimate power shall emerge from the shadows where it was being kept by the schism. And beyond harm from the one who is blocking the door of salvation, for his deceitful schism shall have come to an end. And the mass of the faithful shall attach itself to the worthy Shepherd, who shall extricate each one from error and restore to the Church its beauty. He shall renew it.”

  • Roseanne Sullivan

    He shouldn’t do that. I do not believe that any pope before him stepped down because he was getting old. They are supposed to live the office until death, not until retirement. This is very odd and upsetting. It is not a good thing. How does he dare break the lifelong commitment? Other popes stepped down to resolve impossible situations in the church. Not to retire.

  • David N

    Amen. He played a big part in my conversion to the Church. I am heartbroken. One of the great Popes, he deserves a very joyful and pleasant retirement and a lasting positive legacy.

  • chris awo

    Dear Fr,
    Needless to say it is now time for all who love the church of Jesus Christ to start praying intensely for divine intervention in the election of the new pope.
    NB! in the days to come could you kindly do a piece on brotherly charity viz-a-viz st. polycarp and st. anicetus. thanks

  • Bill

    There’s nobility in this Roseanne. He’s earned this right.

  • Maureen Sullivan

    Pope Benedict xv1, a man with a brilliant mind but also a man with great wisdom has discerned that for the sake of the Church entrusted to him and considering the gravity of the world situation, involving the attacks on human life, the family and the faith ,that he himself due to age and health must resign. His faith is strong, his character is strong, his prayer life is strong and when our new Pope is elected, Pope Benedicts prayers will be sorely needed. God bless Pope Benedict. We will miss you. We love you.

  • Dan

    … Celestine V? I believe he retired due to his age, his exhaustion, and unfitness. He wasn’t exiled, and I think that if Benedict XVI, in his wisdom, has seen that his mind and body have begun to fail and are no longer capable of giving good governance to the Body of Christ, he is likely correct.

  • Alyianna Baggins

    That, my friend, was pure genius. :P

    (Yes, I am a big Tolkienite.)

  • paul Rodden

    The first thing I thought of when I started hearing all the wailing around the blogsphere, was Fr L’s article, Watch Out for Father Wonderful, a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think Benedict wants all that ‘Santo Subito’ stuff if he died in office.

    We have to remember that we’re not Protestants. The papacy is a Spirit-protected office, guardian of the faith, and not a charismatic personality – however much we might love our Holy Father – and he, more than many, will understand that and so not fear the future as the Holy Spirit has everything in order. But have we?

  • Katholikos

    You wondered how Pope Benedict XVI would take his leave of the Vatican, would he be whisked away by a helicopter?

    Perhaps he will whisk himself away by helicopter since he is a helicopter pilot! I would like to see him do that.

    He has never learned to drive a car, never had the need to do so, but he can fly a helicopter.
    Perhaps he knew it was a skill that could be useful some day.

  • Rivka

    It is hurting so much to read what people are saying about him