The pilgrimage had seemed rather random, but its significance is finally clear. On April 28, 2009, while visiting the earthquake-stricken city of L'Aquila in central Italy, Benedict XVI paid a visit to the nearby tomb of Celestine V, a 13th century Pope who reigned for only five months. After pausing in silent prayer, Benedict left his predecessor a gift: his pallium, a liturgical vestment he received when he started his pontificate in 2005. Celestine's claim to fame--and infamy--was his resignation from the office of the papacy, choosing instead to return to a hermit's life. For that, the Roman Catholic Church eventually made him a saint. For the same act--the so-called Great Refusal--Dante Alighieri damned Celestine to the torments of the Inferno.
Benedict may well have reflected on Celestine's dual fate before announcing, two days before Lent, that he would resign on Feb. 28. "The Pope must have felt very lonely in taking this decision," says a well-placed member of the Curia, the secretive bureaucracy that runs the Vatican. "After all, there is no one higher up than him to defer the choice to. Above him, there is only God." The papal announcement, delivered in Latin, stunned the church. Here was a Pope, in the ultimate exercise of free will, giving up his throne and his role as the Vicar of Christ. The last time that happened was 1415, when Gregory VII resigned as part of a negotiated deal to end the schism that had divided the church between rival papacies for close to 40 years.
There is no existential crisis to resolve this time. But Benedict's abdication may transform the church he has ruled for almost eight years of both intractable controversy and burgeoning growth. He cited his physical condition, at age 85, as a reason for stepping down, and his brother Georg indicated that doctors have advised the Pontiff to give up transoceanic flights. The Pope has lived with a pacemaker since before ascending to the throne, and the Vatican acknowledged that its battery was recently replaced as part of regular maintenance. But unless Benedict's health deteriorates rapidly, he will not only see the election of his successor but also watch the new Pontiff take his first steps in the job. That convergence is likely to have huge implications--and perhaps complications.
Though he couched his declaration as an exercise in Christian humility--a confession of human frailty from one of the most powerful men on the planet--the act is also one of great political opportunity, one that may reform the way the church is governed even as it preserves Benedict's conservative agenda. In his way, Benedict may be the last Pope of a model that the world is familiar with--the kind expected to serve till death--and the first in what could be a dramatic new way of administering a spiritual empire of more than 1 billion living souls.