Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI might be trendier than we thought

Posted By on 02.12.13 at 02:44 PM

Celestine V
  • Celestine V
I'm impressed by Pope Benedict XVI. He's retiring. No pope has done that since Gregory XII resigned in 1415 to help resolve the Great Western Schism; and before Gregory XII there was only Celestine V, who gave up the papacy in 1294. For his troubles Celestine V was imprisoned by his successor and dismissed as a coward by Dante in The Divine Comedy.

A brief but informative Tribune article that gives this history the once-over notes that nearly four years ago, Pope Benedict visited Celestine's tomb and left a garment there. It was an odd gesture no one knew what to make of. What it suggested—that Benedict had in mind emulating Celestine—was up until Monday unimaginable.

Retirement is an excruciating decision, even when it means giving up a position vastly less lofty and powerful than pope. I'm reminded of the Beyond the Fringe monologue from the early 1960s when Peter Cook, speaking as a lifelong coal miner who'd scored 75 per cent on his trade's one-question-long qualifying exam ("Who are you?"), weighed the relative advantages of the judging line of work.

"I wish I could have got into judging circles," Cook's miner allowed. "The trouble with being a miner—as soon as you're too old and tired and ill and sick and stupid to do your job properly, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies to the judging."

But judges, not to mention senators and monarchs and now even prelates, are beginning to concede Cook's point. Only one Supreme Court justice, William Rehnquist, has died in office since 1953. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who's 75, announced last month that she's leaving the throne in April in favor of her oldest son. (A Buckingham Palace spokesman told USA Today that Queen Elizabeth isn't going anywhere.)

Here in Chicago, Richard J. Daley was mayor 21 years and died in office, but his son Richard M. was mayor 22 years and gave it up. Until he did that, Chicago hadn't had a mayor leave the Fifth Floor voluntarily since Edward Kelly in 1947; and Kelly went away because the Democratic Organization wanted him gone—in sort of the same way the Council of Constance wanted Gregory XII gone in 1415.

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