Pope Benedict XVI announced yesterday that he would resign as head of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming only the fifth pontiff to step down from the position in the history of the papacy and the first in over 600 years.

Benedict, 85, cited “advanced age” and health as factors in his decision.

“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,” he said Monday in Rome.

Members of the Georgetown faculty expressed astonishment upon hearing the news.

“It is rare that the world is surprised in today’s age, but no one knew this was coming, no one in the Vatican,” said Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry.

Others, though equally surprised, said they had recognized the pope’s health beginning to decline.

Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., an assistant professor in the government department, said that while Benedict still seemed “fairly vibrant,” the pope had slowed down in recent years and was often seen riding in a cart.

Carnes also noted that medicine today allows people to live longer even if they are physically deteriorating, which means that the pope might be leading the Church even in poor health.

“Given the modern technology, people are saying, ‘Gee, maybe it wouldn’t be good to be in decline [and lead],’” Carnes said.

O’Brien agreed.

“I think this is a great act of humility that he actually chose to step aside when he is of sound mind but clearly of deteriorating health,” O’Brien said. “I think he is saying, ‘Let’s do this now, before it gets bad.’”

However, Fr. David Collins, S.J., an associate professor in the history department, said that Benedict’s decision was likely more motivated by the changing role of the papacy.

“Today, if the pope doesn’t have a savvy tweet within 30 seconds, people wonder what’s wrong,” Collins said. “That’s a key reason why popes have to remain energetic to the bitter end. … I’d say it has more to do with modern technologies and the role of the church.”

Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger in Marktl, Germany, will leave his position Feb. 28 after serving nearly eight years as pontiff. He was elected April 19, 2005, by the College of Cardinals after Pope John Paul II died April 2 of that year at age 84.

Most agree that Benedict’s resignation presents a new situation for the Catholic Church, even though historic precedent exists.

Pope Gregory XII was the last pontiff to resign in 1415. He stepped down during the schism, which saw the papacy split between Rome and Avignon. Three other pontiffs, Celestine V, Benedict IX andMarcellinus, have also given up the highest position in the Catholic Church.

Collins indicated that these events took place during times of intrigue when popes faced pressure from fellow Catholics and do not reflect modern times, although they helped establish precedent.

“The legal possibility of a pope resigning has always been there,” Collins said. “John Paul II would frequently bring up [that] ‘a father doesn’t resign from his family’ [but] this pope said from the time he came into office that … it would be appropriate to resign [under certain circumstances].”

Benedict’s decision may also set its own precedent, according to Collins.

“I think we’ll see this as something more regular now,” Collins said. “This can be something that can be talked about and won’t be breaking hundreds of years of tradition.”

Following the announcement, Catholics have become more concerned about the future of the church and have begun to speculate about who might become the next pontiff.

“There’s often significant continuity between popes so I don’t anticipate radical changes with a new pope,” Georgetown College Dean Chester Gillis said yesterday in an interview on “CBS This Morning” on Monday.

Gillis’ prediction indicates that the next cardinal to take the highest position in the Church could have a similar position to Benedict, who had a reputation as a conservative.

“A lot of people believe, and I would agree, that it will be another relatively conservative pope, which is what is needed at this time where there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered for a church that is facing growing secularism and is engaging in interreligious dialogue,” co-chair of the Georgetown University Student Association Mission and Ministry Report Kevin Sullivan (SFS ’14) said.

But the question of where the new pope will come from is still up for debate.

“My thinking is that the cardinals will elect a pope from the southern hemisphere,” O’Brien said.  “My hope is that they will go south. It would be good for the Church.”

“There’s strong speculation that it could be the first African pope, which I think would say a lot about the church,” Sullivan said. “The Church in Africa is representative in the sense that there are deep questions about the role of the Church in society and also a lot of interreligious questions.”

Although Benedict still has about three weeks left in Vatican City, people have begun reflecting on how the pope will be remembered.

“I think his legacy will be having solidified the Church during a very difficult period with the sexual abuse scandal,” Gillis said on the show. “It only became exacerbated over the years both in the moral turpitude [and] in the financial consequences for this, and that was a very heavy burden to bear and he stood up to that. … I think he’s brought us through this very difficult period.”

While Benedict broke hundreds of years of tradition with his choice to resign, the pope still stands in the eyes of many Catholics as a symbol of strength.

“The witness of humility is so powerful to me,” Carnes said. “He reminds us that the church is so much bigger than one priest or one minister. It really is something that the Holy Spirit moves forward.”

 

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