A Brief History of the Previous Papal Resignation

Our Inventory Administrator Thomas Morrison wrote this excellent background piece on the history of resignation in the papacy. Even though our new pope has been elected, we didn’t want to pass up on posting a brief exploration of this fascinating part of Church history. Read on to find out what happened the last time a pope resigned.

The retirement of Pope Benedict XVI is indeed an historic occasion, markedly due to the rareness of such an event. This is the first Papacy in almost 600 years to end with the Pontiff’s retirement. The last pope to leave the papal office by resignation was Pope Gregory XII in the year 1415. His retirement was by design, to end the Great Schism that had divided the Church for 39 years (1378-1417).

The troubles of that era began with Pope Clement V (elected in 1305) who, for his own reasons, refused to move to Rome, and held Papal office from Avignon in France. The papacy was returned to Rome in 1377 with the election of Gregory XI.  However, when Gregory XI died prematurely in 1378, the new pope, Urban VI, was not liked by many of his cardinals. They fled to Avignon and, supported by the precedent of Clement V, elected their own pope, Clement VII.

This became a diplomatic crisis that divided Europe. Despite repeated efforts to have the papacy officially returned to Rome, the French monarchy decided they very much enjoyed the power and prestige of having so high and distinguished an office in their own country. And so, for this period, there were actually two reigning pontiffs—one in Rome and one in Avignon—each claiming Divine authority. Though the two pontiffs did not differ theologically, this caused a lot of strife and sometimes outright warfare between the various supporters of the two popes: France and her allies following the edicts of the pope at Avignon, and England and her allies supporting the Roman papacy.

The Schism finally began to be resolved when the cardinals in Rome elected Gregory XII in 1406, with the condition that both he and the reigning pope at Avignion, Benedict XIII, resign to settle the dispute. The cardinals established the Council of Constance in 1414, who ruled that the papacy be returned to Rome with the election of Pope Martin V in 1417. The tradition of the pope ruling the church from Rome has continued without further interruption to this day.

Reportedly, Gregory XII lived out his final days in comfort at the beautiful seaport of Ancona in Italy. We offer our hopes and prayers for his holiness Benedict XVI, that he also find contentment and peace in his retirement.

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