Shock-waves from the Vatican were sent around the world on February 11, 2013. Pope Benedict XVI announced that “with full freedom I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome.” Within hours, lightning struck the dome of St. Peter’s basilica, not once but twice!
He made his announcement during a routine consistory: a meeting of the cardinals present in Rome. The assembled ecclesiastical officials had come expecting to give their formal approval for three canonizations. Having dutifully completed that business, they settled back to hear the Pope give a short address in Latin.
During the presumably routine address, one reporter—more alert than others, and no doubt more comfortable with the Latin language Pope Benedict used—let out a gasp. Pope Benedict had delivered a thunderbolt of his own.
The Pope’s resignation took everyone by surprise. Only a select few of his aides had been informed about his intentions, and there were no rumors spreading beforehand. Although the idea of a papal resignation was not entirely unprecedented, as both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had contemplated it as a theoretical possibility, it had not actually happened in many centuries.
Pope Benedict gave only a general explanation of his reasons for stepping down: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
People theorized a dramatic deterioration of his health, or perhaps he had learned that dementia was setting in. He lived another almost ten years, passing away at 95 years old on the last day of 2022. In his remaining years, although he was frail with advanced age his mind remained sharp.
Catholics have been left with a sense of uncertainty regarding Pope Benedict’s resignation. They question whether his decision was solely based on his declining strength or if there were undisclosed factors involved. This ambiguity has led some individuals to doubt the authenticity of the resignation, speculating whether there were irregularities in the process that allowed him to retain some residual papal authority.
Canon law did not require Pope Benedict to give any fuller explanation of his reasons for resignation. For better or worse, he chose to provide no details. Within orthodox circles, many families agree quietly to themselves that the bolt of lightning was a sign of divine ire.
And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings, and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great. And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.