By Michael J. ARVIZU
A few weeks ago, Pope Francis, the Catholic pontiff, announced that he would consider retirement should his health fail and he is no longer able to carry out the duties and responsibilities of the office he was elected to.
Francis, should he choose to retire, would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI who, after being elected in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II, chose to retire in 2013 after only eight years in office.
Francis replaced Benedict at a time when resignation by a pope was almost unheard of. Almost, because although ultra rare, papal resignations have occurred throughout history.
Indeed, it is ironic that a pope has the right to resign from a position traditionally considered as lifetime appointment
Of course, not all lifetime appointments are meant to be as such.
The last resignation by a reigning pontiff was 600 years ago by Gregory XII. His resignation paved the way for the end of the Western Schism, a split in the Western church caused by multiple claimants to the papacy.
Papal resignations, though, share one common theme: many were done “for the good of the church,” said Dr. Donald Prudlo, a medieval historian and associate professor of history at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, in a 2013 interview with Vatican Radio.
Papal resignations go back as early as 235 AD, Prudlo said.
It’s fair to say that for us, living in the 21st century, it is virtually impossible to fathom a time six or 17 centuries in the past. An event like a papal resignation is lost to history, until a pope does it again, and we are shocked by it.
Such was Pope Benedict, and such may be with Francis.
And why shouldn’t Francis retire should he feel the need? The papacy is bigger than any one man. The reigning pontiff should be able to look beyond himself, offer the church the opportunity to discover new talent among its ranks and the chance to grow by virtue of those talents.
Consider the Dalai Lama, a “simple Buddhist monk” born in Taktser, Amdo in northeastern Tibet. He considers himself semi-retired. In a message published in spring 2011, his holiness alludes to democratic elections by the Central Tibetan administration of their prime minister. Since the government-in-exile was established in 1959, the Dalai Lama has always nominated the candidate.
As such, the Lama writes, “Since then, 10 years have passed and the day will come for us when we have to follow a meaningful democratic system.”
What he is saying here is that the government has grown, and he must grow with it.
He goes on further, writing, “But now as we are in the 21st century, sooner or later the time for change is imminent.”
But it will be his decision, and his alone, to “end the spiritual and temporal rule over Tibet,” he wrote.
I am sure both holinesses would agree with previous leaders of their faith who have resigned that their actions were carried out for the “good” of their respective faiths.
Reach Michael J. Arvizu at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @thedjmichaelj.