By sheer coincidence, I was in Rome on Feb. 11, 2013. My wife and I had already moved back to the United States from Rome, but on that date I had returned to give a talk on religious freedom at the Italian Foreign Ministry, which is why I happened to be in town when the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was made.
Here’s how I became aware of it: I was standing at a coffee break talking to other speakers when my mobile phone rang, with a BBC reporter asking if I could confirm the pope was about to quit. Because I had received countless calls over the years asking me to run down bogus pope stories, I snapped, “This is probably total BS, and I don’t have time for it!”
After hanging up, I walked back into the main conference room where I saw my good friend Phil Pullella, Rome bureau chief for Reuters, who had the same look on his face that people who’ve survived car accidents often project. It turns out he had just got off the phone with a Vatican official confirming the pope’s resignation, and he turned to me and said, “We have to leave now!”
The weeks that followed are a blur (except for my clear memory that Pullella still owes me cab fare for our ride to the Vatican), but with the distance of three years from that historic moment, one thing seems abundantly clear.
While Pope Francis is rightly celebrated for his personal humility and simplicity, the single greatest of act of papal humility the world has witnessed in at least the last 700 years, and arguably forever, came three years ago today from Benedict XVI.
Yes, there’s a handful of popes who had resigned before. The most proximate in time was Gregory XII, who renounced his office in 1415 in order to end the Great Western Schism. The only real parallel in the sense of a voluntary resignation, however, was Pope Celestine V in 1294, whom Dante consigned to the antechambers of Hell for his “Great Refusal.”
Even that comparison isn’t quite on point, because Celestine was facing both the power of King Charles II of Naples and his own successor in the papacy, Boniface VIII, and ended up dying in prison. (As a footnote, in 2009 Benedict XVI laid his papal stole on the remains of Pope Celestine during a visit to Aquila in Italy, which in hindsight seems a clear indication that resignation might have been on his mind even then.)
Benedict was the first pope to renounce his powers, not in the teeth of schism, foreign armies, or internal power struggles, but rather as the result of an honest self-examination that he simply wasn’t up to the demands of the office any longer.
Granted, some Italians believe Benedict stepped down because of a leaks scandal involving secret documents stolen by his former butler, or as the result of pressure from a nefarious insider lobby in the Vatican opposed to his efforts at “purification.” Benedict and those close to him, however, have consistently rejected those explanations, and in any event they don’t make his decision any less voluntary.
Despite Benedict’s reputation as an arch-conservative, this was a deeply innovative thing to do. Over the years, I’d consulted experts on the papacy in Rome who felt it was inconceivable, not to mention theologically impossible, for a pope to resign.
“My God,” one of those experts once told me. “Can you imagine a resigned pope? He might as well be the Archbishop of Canterbury!”
In truth, Benedict never got credit for the real humility he exuded throughout his life, including his eight-year run as pope.
Here’s a classic example: Shortly after the election of Pope Francis in March 2013, the new pontiff returned to the Rome residence where he’d stayed prior to the conclave, the Casa del Clero, in order to pack his own bag and pay his own bill. That episode became part of the “humble pope” narrative that has surrounded Francis ever since.
Know what Pope Benedict did after his election?
He returned to his apartment in Rome’s Piazza Leonina to pack his own bag, which he ported himself back to the papal quarters. His apartment was on the same floor with the residences of three other cardinals, and as he left, Benedict rang their doorbells to thank the startled nuns who acted as the household staffs for being such good neighbors.
(As a footnote, several of those sisters were Americans, members of the Mercy Sisters of Alma.)
Why does the story about Francis become legend, while the other about Benedict is almost forgotten? Because Benedict carried a bad narrative into the papacy, while Francis had the good luck to be able to shape his own.
In truth, those who’ve had the chance to interact with Benedict generally believe that no public figure in the modern era has suffered from a more dramatic disjunction between public image and private personality. In public, Benedict was seen as aloof and autocratic; in private, he came off as kind, gentle, and shy.
History will almost certainly portray Benedict in a kinder light than contemporary accounts. In the meantime, Church officials might want to consider marking Feb. 11 as the “Feast of Holy Humility”, because no matter what happens from here on out, they’re unlikely to get a better example at a higher level.