Stunning news out of Rome that Pope Benedict XVI has announced he will resign the papacy as of 28 February, making him the first Pope in nearly 600 years to step down voluntarily from the throne of St. Peter.  The news has thrown the Church into a tizzy, as no one saw this resignation coming.

The 85-year-old German’s resignation letter said, in part: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, 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.

Pope Benedict XVI at a consistory at the Vatican today
Pope Benedict XVI at a consistory at the Vatican today

“…in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

Of course, very little in Vatican City is as simple as it seems or is presented. 

Elevated to the papacy in April 2005, Benedict (born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on 16 April 1927 in Marktl, Bavaria, Germany) is the 265th pontiff of the Catholic Church.  What has certainly  weighed heavily on his mind for years has been the decade-long child abuse scandal, which began in the U.S. before spreading throughout the world.  The in-house investigation into this tragic scandal was conducted by then Cardinal Ratzinger while he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Shaking the Church to its very foundation, the widespread abuse of children has already cost the Church tens of millions of dollars — with who knows how many more cases still to be adjudicated.  How that scandal influenced the Pope’s decision to resign can’t help but be asked.  In any case, one would think that the Fathers of the Church would be looking for stability in the next office holder as a greater prerequisite than ever to help shepherd the flock through one of the greatest crises in the Church’s 2000-year history.

For those not of Catholic upbringing, before Benedict we had ourselves a healthy, strapping Pope in John Paul II (born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland 18 May 1920).  Elected by the College of Cardinals 16 October 1978, John Paul reigned over the Holy See for over 26 years, making his the second longest papal reign in history, behind only Pius IX (1846–1878) whose 31 years, 7 months and 23 days still holds the record.

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

More than the first non-Italian pope in 456 years, JPII embodied a physical vigor which not only animated his papal reign, but linked him to so many of his flock who had also come to know through their own exercise how such activity can so manifestly enrich the spiritual self.  What’s more, the need for stability in office was especially relevant in 1978 when remembering the catastrophic reigns of John Paul II’s two immediate predecessors who died so quickly after ascending the throne of St. Peter.  John Paul 1 lasted just 33 days in office, tying him for 10th on the all-time shortest reign list.

Now that German-born Benedict XVI has decided to DNF after just seven years — and with the church undergoing so many challenges to its basic authority, and continuity at the top being such a prime concern — you might think it wise that the Mother Church re-examine her ancient, but perhaps anachronistic method for choosing her pontiffs.  How then, you may ask, can the lads in red more beneficially propagate a like-conditioned pontiff as JPII or Pius IX?

More history: In 1059 the electorate was restricted to the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, and the individual votes of all Cardinal Electors were made equal in 1179.  The election of the pope almost always takes place in the Sistine Chapel, in a sequestered meeting called a conclave (so called because the cardinal electors are theoretically locked in, cum clave, i.e., with key, until they elect a new pope).

It’s a bit of a tradition, no doubt, but I say rather than bring all the College of Cardinals together in a chapel to vote secretly until a consensus is reached — while the crowd outside in St. Peter’s Square awaits a white-smoke-if-yes, black-smoke-if-no signal — why don’t the cardinals all convene outside in St. Peter’s Square and insure that the fittest man among them assumes the papal throne?

The 1960 Olympic Marathon ran through the ancient city. This March 17th the annual Rome Marathon will be staged, so the timing couldn’t be more perfect.  The course even runs by St. Peter’s Square before finishing outside the Coliseum.  Sure, training might be a little light, but that, too, might insure that the cardinal with the best ongoing fitness regime would be selected.

Why not, then, stage what we might call a Pope-athon, a Run For the Mitre to select our next pontiff?  Who would deny that running a marathon doesn’t put you, in fact, closer to God than just about any other worldly endeavor?  Of course, we might move from 500 years of Italian popes to a half-millenium of East African popes, but enlightenment and strength would certainly be the consequence of this selection process.  We could even use the Popemobile as the pace car.

Popemobile Pacecar
Popemobile Pacecar

So, gentlemen, “On your St. Marks….”






(P.S. It’s a joke)

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