Pope’s Resignation another Chapter in Amazing Papal History
One of my oft spoken lines is that when it comes to church history, truth is stranger than fiction. There are so many fascinating aspects about our history as the Catholic Church that it keeps me up at night just thinking about this stuff! The part of church history that I think is most fascinating, and “strangest” is papal history. And with the retirement/resignation of Pope Benedict XVI we are living it right now. We all have a front row seat for one of the oddest and most unique happenings in all of church history; popes don’t leave office except when they start to push up daisies. This is not supposed to be happening.
Papal elections and their histories are full of great stories. Here are just a few. During the second conclave of 1978 when it appeared as though Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Poland was about to win the election, the Polish cardinal was conversing with Cardinal Konig of Vienna, Austria, about the name he should choose if he was actually elected. Wojtyla told Konig that he would take the name Stanislas, after the Polish saint. Konig said in no uncertain terms, “You will be called John Paul II.” Wojtyla responded by saying, “Let us see what happens in the afternoon.” I am pretty sure it’s the last order Wojtyla ever took.
In the first conclave of 1978, the one which elected John Paul I (Albino Luciani), after he won the election, as is the custom, he was asked the formal question if he would accept the position. Luciani shocked the cardinals who had just elected him by giving a brief speech in which he stated he was not fit for the Petrine ministry, and he refused the election. He told them to give it more serious thought as to who would make a better pope than he himself, and then to choose that man. After the next ballot Luciani won again, and actually received almost every vote. According to urban legend after the second vote, he looked upward and said, “God, I forgive you for doing this to me.” John Paul I’s election also happened to be the shortest one in papal election history.
The news of the election of one of the last canonized popes, Pius X (1903-1914), was leaked to the world before it was formally announced, and leaked in the most unusual way. One of the staff who happened to be working in the conclave left the Sistine Chapel immediately after Pius X won the balloting and, running to one of the massive windows facing St. Peter’s Square, the man took a large pair of scissors and made hand motions as if he were tailoring. The wise members of the anticipating crowd knew exactly who was elected by this unique game of charades: Giuseppe Cardinal Sarto: sarto in Italian means tailor.
Perhaps the strangest papal election goes all the way back to the year 236 AD. After the death of Pope St. Anterus the priests of the Diocese of Rome, as was the custom at the time, were gathering to elect their bishop. While they were processing to the place where they would vote, a group of pilgrims traveling to the holy sites passed by them when suddenly a dove landed on the head of one of the pilgrims, a layman named Fabian. The priests took it as a sign from God and selected the unfortunate pilgrim right there on the spot.
Today, of course, the cardinals gather behind locked doors of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The word conclave actually means to lock with a key. There is a reason for the seemingly strange tradition of locking cardinals behind closed doors during the election of a pope. It comes from an event that happened in the city of Viterbo in the spring of 1271. The seventeen cardinals could not make up their minds for over two years as to whom they should choose as pope, so the authorities of that city locked them in the bishop’s residence. After weeks with no vote, the townspeople started to ration the cardinals’ food and water, and finally after several more weeks had passed the frustrated people of Viterbo tore off the roof of the bishop’s chapel to allow the Holy Spirit easier access to the cardinal electors! This resulted in the quick election of Pope Gregory X.
These are a few vignettes in a history chock full of fascinating events. Truly papal history is stranger than fiction. And the exciting thing is that we are living it right now!
A papal retirement!
Who would have ever figured?
The Papal Minutes on Papal Artifacts
Click on the words, “Papal Minutes,” (below) to access this feature of Papal Artifacts & Real Presence Radio
All the Minutes are connected to popes on Papal Artifacts. They include some details we’ve not included in the past–for example, what occurred from a window in the Vatican just prior to the election of Pope Pius X? Giuseppe Sarto’s surname is translated, “tailor.” You can find out by accessing the above link.
Enjoy the Papal Minutes—a gift from the Curator of Papal Artifacts!