When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the papacy, very few had seen it coming. The Bavarian pope cited his declining health as the main reason for leaving his office, stating, "I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry." Many knew that the 85-year-old pontiff's health had deteriorated of late, but no Vatican observer ever thought that he would step down—especially because no pope had resigned from office since 1415, when Gregory XII ended his nine-year papacy. Benedict XVI's voluntary resignation is only the third such resignation in the nearly 2,000 years since Roman bishops have ruled the Catholic Church.
Despite few anticipating such a move, The Economist reports in a February 16, 2013, article, "The Pope's Resignation: See You Later":
Benedict had been toying with resignation for almost four years. Visiting the earthquake-stricken Italian city of L'Aquila in 2009, he left his pallium, the woollen band that is a symbol of the papal office, at the tomb of Celestine V, a reluctant pope who resigned [in 1294] to pray. In 2010 he said that a pope who became unable to do his job properly "has the right, and in some circumstances even the duty, to resign."
And so he did, retiring initially to the Papal Palace in Castel Gandolfo, and later, once its renovations are completed, to the newly refurbished Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican.
Considered by many in the media as far too conservative and boring, Benedict's papacy has been reported as having been a failure. The truth is that, overall, his pontificate was quite successful. He steadfastly defended Catholic doctrine, as would be expected from the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (known historically as the Inquisition), the Church's doctrinal enforcement agency. He preserved his office and Church against the relativistic and progressive attitudes and ideas that so dominate today's world. Though the Vatican suffered a handful of scandals during his administration, Benedict did not allow them to soften his beliefs or approach. His holding the line against such staunch opposition obviously took its toll on his health and strength.
He has been succeeded by 76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the son of Italian immigrants. The new pope, the first Jesuit to wear the papal mitre, chose the name "Francis" in honor of Francis of Assisi because, he said, he is especially concerned for the welfare of the poor. Of Francis of Assisi, Bergoglio once expressed, "He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history." His admiration for the founder of the Franciscan Order may portend how he will frame his papacy.
By all accounts, Pope Francis is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man of the people who is known for his sense of humor. He has "a well-earned reputation for holiness and humility," as one writer for Maclean's put it. In the dozen years that he was head of the Catholic Church in Argentina, he never lived in the ecclesiastical mansion but shared an apartment in downtown Buenos Aires with an elderly priest, heating the place with a small stove. He took public transportation and cooked his own meals. He regularly visited the city's slums and washed the feet of the poor, the sick, the elderly, or the imprisoned every Maundy Thursday. In 2011, he did this for newborns and pregnant women.
As his papacy begins, he has not changed his habits in this regard. He has a "no frills" style that endears him to the public yet exasperates his Vatican handlers. Just after being elected, he chose to take the bus with his fellow cardinals back to his hotel rather than the papal car, and the next day, he picked up his own luggage and paid the bill himself. He has refused to take up residence in the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace, preferring to live in the Vatican guest house, though he has conceded to an "upgrade," a suite of rooms where he can conduct meetings and receive visitors. On his first Maundy Thursday as pope, he continued his practice of footwashing, washing and kissing the feet of twelve juvenile offenders in Rome.
His easy, gentle manner could make some underestimate him. Underneath his plain white cassock and iron cross is a forceful personality that brooks no argument on the tenets of his heartfelt positions. He is solidly in the conservative wing of Roman Catholic theologians, as a disciple of John Paul II and fellow of Benedict XVI. Though holding traditional views on most doctrines, he cannot be said to be a hardliner in the sense that his predecessor was thought to be. His sermons and writings often contain language that makes fine distinctions between theological dogma and measured, merciful responses in light of living in a sinful world.
One of his heartfelt positions—one that could bring him into conflict with certain parts of the Western world—is his left-leaning criticism of global capitalism, calling it a "tyranny" that values human beings solely by the goods they consume and a "cult of money" that makes people miserable. Believing that unbridled capitalism has exacerbated poverty and led to the disregard of ethics, he advocates more stringent controls over financial markets.
What his papacy accomplishes only time will tell. Despite rumors of its decline, the Catholic Church, 1.2 billion strong, is still a force to be reckoned with, especially in Europe, Africa, and particularly in Latin America, where more than two-fifths of its adherents live. There are already a few signs that this new pope may flex the Vatican's political muscles more than the old pope did—if only in his insistence that Catholics need to live out their faith in the world—and that could make for some interesting times ahead.