28 February 2013 – Vatican City
Pope’s aren’t supposed to retire. It’s meant to be a job for life. Albeit, quite a short life, since most Bishops of Rome aren’t given the gig until they’re already old men. It’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI three days after his 78th birthday. Just under eight years later he resigned, becoming Pope Emeritus. His successor, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) was 76.
Pope statistics are like a hyper-extended pub quiz for bored/boring historians. You know the sorts of things – “who was the only man to captain England while playing in Division 4?”1; “Which planet would float in water?”2; “Who was the last man on the moon?”3 – et cetera ad nauseam.
So, for example – did you know that Pope Francis is the first non-European pope since 741 AD? Or that Bennedict is the first pope to resign voluntarily since 1294?
Leo XIII was the oldest pope, dying at the ripe old age of 93 in 1903.
Pius IX reigned the longest of the elected popes (technically St Peter was pope for longer) between 1846 and 1878; while Urban VII was pope for just 12 days in 1590.
Adrian IV was the only British pope; while Francis is the only one from the New World.
In amongst all this popefoolery, however, was a relatively modern phenomenon – the Papacy becoming less divine and more human.
For sure, Popes have fucked, led armies, been driven around in bullet proof limousines, run away because they never wanted the job in the first place and plenty of other… less than divine acts.
But by resigning due to health concerns? That’s very new. And suggests that the Papacy is becoming more like any other high profile head-of-state job. If the incumbent does not feel able to fulfil many of the role’s public and administrative duties, should he step aside? No other pope has thought so – and many have been in far worse shape than Benedict.
In then electing a pope from South America, the church has also embraced its global reach by moving out of Europe for the first time in millennia. That in itself was a pretty bold step, given that all popes between 1523 and 1978 had been Italian. Francis is seen as a moderniser (meaning he doesn’t completely hate gays or contraception, and doesn’t mind Jewish people), and perhaps reflects anxieties that Catholicism in the twenty-first century may have to increase it market appeal outside of its traditional target demo.
In any event, until I was 19 I had lived in a world where I had known only one Queen of England and one Bishop of Rome. Even now, only one pope and one Queen have left this mortal coil.4 It seems that modern medicine and fortunate timing is doing a miraculous job of keeping a low turnover in monarchical heads of state.