VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI, who stunned the world Monday with the announcement he will resign on Feb. 28 because his age is impairing his ability to govern, is the first pontiff to step down in almost 600 years.
In 2,000 years, only one pope has resigned because he could not carry on his papal duties, but over the same period of time, numerous popes were deposed or exiled.
Four popes died while in exile or in prison, six were assassinated, two died of wounds received in the course of riots and one was killed when a roof collapsed.
The only previous pope to step down because he considered himself unable to continue was Celestine V, a simple hermit who was elected against his will to end a deadlock among cardinals and resigned in 1294 after reigning a mere five months.
Pietro del Morrone had been a Benedictine monk, renowned for renouncing worldly goods for a barren life in a mountain cave in central Italy’s Abruzzo region.
When he wrote to the cardinals after the death of Pope Nicholas IV urging them to elect a successor quickly, they chose him. Shortly after taking up the chair of St. Peter, he issued a decree declaring it possible for a pope to resign, opening up the way for his own departure.
His decision to back out sparked derision and Italian poet Dante Alighieri famously condemned him in The Divine Comedy to spend eternity in hell’s antechamber for his “cowardice” in making “the great refusal.”
Here are some examples of other popes who have given up the papacy:
In 1045, Benedict IX, renowned as one of the most disgraceful popes the church has known, sold his papacy to his godfather, pious priest John Gratian, so that he could get married. Reportedly unable to persuade the woman in question to have him, he returned to seize the papal seat.
In 1046, Gratian, who had reigned briefly as Pope Gregory VI and was considered the true pope by many despite Benedict IX’s violent return to claim the throne, was forced to resign himself amid accusations he had bought the papacy.
In 1415, Gregory XII was forced out as part of a deal to end the “Western Schism”, when two rival claimants declared themselves pope in Pisa and Avignon and threatened to tear apart Roman Catholicism.
In 1804, Pius VII signed an abdication of the papal throne before setting out for Paris to crown Napoleon to be put into effect in case he was imprisoned in France.
During World War II, Pius XII is reported to have signed a document that said he was to be considered as having resigned his office should he be kidnapped by the Nazis.
Several popes resigned or were martyred as the Roman Empire collapsed, and the Eternal City — sacked and depopulated by barbarian hordes — fell prey to quarrelling factions. But the historical details of how they fell are often lost in the mists of time, and mostly, only the legends remain.