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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Unprecedented: Handling the retirement of Benedict XVI

If love of history is a vice, then the past couple of days have been hardcore porn for me.

Inclement weather brought on icy roads this past Sunday night, so I decided to stay over at my girlfriend's house and leave early the next morning. I was already awake up in the guest room when the news broke that Pope Benedict XVI had announced he would be resigning at the end of the month. It was shocking enough to send me racing downstairs to knock on Kristen's bedroom door to tell her about it.

I'm kinda glad for the early-morning insomnia: Lord only knows what would have happened if I was halfway asleep and heard something like that. Probably have broken my neck trying to tumble out of bed...

This sort of thing is absolutely fascinating to me. It has been very nearly 600 years since the last time a pope left of his own accord... and that was amidst severe theological strife within the Catholic Church. It is certainly something that has been scarcely contemplated - if at all - that might transpire in our modern era. And by all accounts Benedict kept his decision close to his heart, letting extremely few senior clergy in the loop about it until Monday morning Rome time.

(What I wouldn't have given to be a fly on the wall at the Vatican PR office when they got handed that for a press release...)

The reaction of the College of Cardinals? Probably something along the lines of... and please forgive my germane lingo... "Oh crud, NOW what?!?"

So, after six centuries of knowing what to do when a sitting pope died, how is the Church going to handle a resignation?

The most interesting live Twitter-ing I've ever followed was courtesy of of Father Roderick Vonhogen: podcaster, writer and go-to guy of all things Catholicism-related (and word on the street is that he's a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen). You can visit his official website here. Yesterday morning he was on Twitter like a madman, sharing the official press conference given by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.

I was intently following along. And what did the good padre have to report about His Holiness' imminent departure from the business of the Holy See?

- Today being Ash Wednesday, the celebrations will continue as scheduled but will be moved to Saint Peter's Basilica because of the enormous crowds that are to be expected.

- Benedict XVI's final general audience will be on February 27th, the day before his resignation takes effect. It will be in Saint Peter's Square, again because of the vast number of people that is anticipated.

- Apparently there will be no special ceremonies or celebrations to mark Benedict's departure. He will simply "leave working at the office" at 8 p.m. that evening, as is his usual custom.

- Where does a former pope live? In Benedict XVI's case it will be to a small monastery on the grounds of the Vatican. The monastery of Mater Ecclesiae is now being prepared to be Benedict's future home.

- But what are we supposed to call the man who once was pope? This is apparently something still being discussed but for the time being, "Papal Emeritus" is the current term.

- Benedict XVI and the incoming pope will decide if Benedict will have a part in the installation of the new pontiff.

- "This is a new situation" regarding the Ring of the Fisherman: the ring which each pope wears and is used to seal official documents. It has traditionally been smashed in front of witnesses by the Camerlengo (Cardinal Chamberlain) immediately upon the death of the pope so as to prevent forgeries that might be produced during Sede Vacante: "the time of the empty chair". The Ring of the Fisherman and all other official effects pertaining to Benedict XVI's ministry will be destroyed as usual... but they just haven't figured out how to do it yet.

- Benedict XVI will not participate in the selection of the next pope. The College of Cardinals will be "autonomous", Father Roderick reported. And Benedict XVI is prohibited from taking part in Conclave (the College of Cardinals' secret deliberation and election, during which the cardinals are sequestered away in the Vatican with no outside correspondence, communication or departure whatsoever until a new pope is chosen). For one thing he is past the age of 80: the cut-off for cardinals to be electors in a papal election. For another, Benedict XVI is no longer a cardinal anyway (I thought that was especially interesting).

- Preparations for the Conclave will begin on March 1st. Conclave must begin no sooner than 15 days and no later than 20 days after the resignation of Benedict XVI.

- As Father Roderick conveyed from Father Lombardi: "the Pope doesn't gather the cardinals for the new conclave; they are smart enough to know that they should be here in March."

I am not a Catholic, but I have always found the history and procedures of the Roman Catholic Church to be extraordinarily gripping stuff. And it's not gonna get much more gripping than what is about to occur during the next several days and weeks.

Pay close attention to this time, good readers! Regardless of your religious persuasion, this might well be something you can tell your grandchildren about.