Updated 02/28/2013 05:58 PM
The changing papacy
The decision by Pope Benedict XVI to step aside is something unusual in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, but not something unheard of. YNN's Bill Carey says over the past two thousand years, the papacy has faced many changes and many challenges.
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Modern Catholics had never seen it happen. The leader of their Church stepping away from the job. Resigning.
“We always thought that the Pope would be around for life. So it takes all of us a while to get used to this. He's carried the weight for eight years. And he feels he can serve the Church better in another way,” said Bishop Robert Cunningham.
St. Peter's Basilica is named for the first Pope or Bishop of Rome, Peter the apostle. But for the early church, being Peter's successor, brought very little extra power.
“Originally the Bishop of Rome, whoever that was, it seems that this person had a certain moral authority outside of the diocese of Rome, which no other Bishop had,” said Father Donald Maldari.
But the Pope was not the figure he is now.
Maldari said, “Most people in Europe didn't know there was a Pope. Communication wasn't great. They had their local Bishop and that was the person they looked to.”
Eventually, power was consolidated in Rome. But changes in leaders were frequent. Some were forced out. Some were even murdered. Some resigned, but rarely survived.
In 1294, when a monk became Pope Celestine, he was ready to quit within a few months. He stepped aside, but his successor, fearing intrigue, kept him under house arrest and he died 10 months later.
A little over a thousand years ago, another Benedict, Benedict IV, actually left the papacy three times. Once he was deposed. After returning, he took a bribe to step aside for another leader and then returned a third time and again resigned.
In the mid 1440s, the church was torn by divisions with clerics in Rome, France and Turkey, all claiming to be the leader of the church.
“So at one point, there were three Popes. Three people claiming to be Pope,” Maldari said.
That led to the last resignation of a Pope in Rome, Gregory XII, who stepped aside as part of a deal to end the divide.
The papacy, since, has stabilized. Men were selected. They served until they died. Now, Benedict has offered a new option.
Maldari said, “ I think he is setting a precedent, allowing people, or at least making it easier, for people to retire from the position.”
Still, there is uncertainty.
“Sure, it's a little bit of unsettled now, but there's a lot of things in life that are unsettled,” Cunningham said. “This is just one of them.”
Unanswered is a question no one has asked for hundreds of years. What role will an ex-Pope play?