Benedict XVI officially resigned as pope on Thursday, February 28, 2013, marking the first time in nearly 600 years that a pontiff has retired. After his announcement on February 11 of his intention to resign at the end of the month, a conclave was quickly scheduled to elect a new pope in time for Easter Sunday on March 31.
The 1.2 billion Roman Catholics of the world welcomed Pope Francis, a former Argentine cardinal, on March 13, 2013. He is not only the first pope to take the name Francis, but also the first non-European pope of the modern era, the first from Latin America, and the first Jesuit pope.
Benedict, 85, explained his resignation with the statement: “My strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
Pope Benedict’s stepping down has been a surprising turn of events for many bystanders, as he was extremely unwilling to let anyone resign while he held the title of pope. The most infamous example is Ireland’s Cardinal Sean Brady, who requested to resign after admitting to allegations of covering up the pedophilic activities of Father Brendan Smyth. Benedict refused to accept his resignation, and Brady remains in office today.
For Caroline Wagner ’14, Benedict’s resignation was shocking for another reason: its symbolism. “[Benedict’s resignation] can be considered a rejection of the entirety of the Catholic Church, which looked to him for guidance these past years,” Wagner said. “Now we are to believe that he is unfit [for the job], and probably was while he held the position of Pope.”
Mr. Ben Bakker, leader of the Deerfield Christian Fellowship, had a different perspective. “Sometimes, in a life of faith, there are just times for change in leadership,” Mr. Bakker said. “[Benedict] may have decided that his calling, [according to] God, was to step down.”
Meanwhile, Pope Francis, 76, celebrated his first Easter Mass with notable stylistic differences from Benedict. Francis shared hugs and handshakes with the crowd as he crossed St. Peter’s Square in a vehicle unprotected by bulletproof glass.
“What are you going to rank above hugging and being with people and being open?” Mr. Bakker said of Francis’ lack of protection on his way to the ceremony. “We often can’t reach out to other people because we are afraid of the losses that can come from it. I think it’s a great symbol for [Pope Francis] to say, if I die, I die, but I’m going to put reputation aside and get in touch with people.”
Easter Mass was not Francis’ first deviation from tradition as pope. Three days before Easter Mass, on Holy Thursday, the pope visited a youth detention center in Rome to wash the feet of twelve detainees, among them two women.
Some traditionalists believe that the twelve individuals whose feet are washed should reflect the twelve male apostles.
“Biblically, Jesus was breaking down all barriers [that the Church authority had established at that time] in the name of serving and loving others around him,” Mr. Bakker said. “I think washing women’s feet is a sign [that Francis is] looking at church traditions more thoughtfully in terms of what Jesus was teaching.”
Wagner also sees great hope in the new leader of the Roman Catholic religion. “I think Francis makes people excited to be Catholic,” Wagner said. “Now we have a figure that people admire as the head of our church. There is new light to look to, and I think Catholics everywhere are excited to begin a new era under Pope Francis. Those who aren’t Catholic have a new respect for our church as we are returning to our original values and revitalizing the church.”