Not quite a once-in-a-598-year event

Tue, Feb 12, 2013, 00:00

Those interested in a punt on the Archbishop of Dublin as next pope – with odds of 75-1 on offer yesterday afternoon – will be interested to hear that the last pontiff to resign was succeeded by a Martin.

Gregory XII yielded his post in 1415 to Martin V to avoid the “Western Schism”, a power struggle between two regal factions that had made rivals claims to the papacy.

To say a papal resignation is a once-in-a-598- year event is a slight overstatement. Benedict’s is the fifth confirmed resignation in the last millennium.

Catholic historians believe between three and six earlier resignations took place but the absence of proper records has left the issue open to debate.

The best-known is that of Pope Celestine V, who departed in 1294 after just five months. Unlike Gregory XII, who faced some coercion to quit, Celestine resigned voluntarily, citing a “longing for the tranquillity of his former life”.

His successor, Boniface VIII, reportedly plotted for his abdication, and is perhaps best remembered for being condemned to hell in Dante’s Inferno. He was certainly happy to get the job – and repaid Celestine by imprisoning him until his death. Celestine has since been canonised.

The first historically unquestionable resignation is that of Benedict IX in 1045. One of the youngest popes, he was the only man to have held the position more than once and the only man ever to have sold the papacy.

Gregory VI, the man who bought it from him, was forced to resign in 1046. Celestine is sometimes said to have been the only pope to have freely surrendered the position -– before Benedict XVI, that is.

There is evidence, however, that previous popes resigned without controversy, including John XVIII in 1009.

Others who resigned or were exiled included Pontian (230-235), Marcellinus (296-308) and Silverius (536-537).