In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That was 77 years after the last resignation of a pope.
On Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI will leave his position as the head of the Catholic Church and become the first Bishop of Rome to leave the position prior to death in nearly 600 years.
“This is the first time that a person has chosen, for health reasons, to give up the position,” the Rev. Robert Grant said. “It’s really unprecedented.”
In mid-March, the world will be witness to a papal conclave, in which the College of Cardinals will be electing a new pope. The election process is deeply-rooted in tradition and will be nearly identical to the vote held after the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. One major difference between that election and the coming one will be the early warning that a resignation provides.
“It’s essentially the first time that there’s been a month advanced notice that they’re going to be doing this,” Grant said. “Probably there’s all sorts of discussion and talks and negotiations going on privately and unofficially all over the place already.”
One topic of discussion among the cardinals is likely what factor age will play in determining the next pontiff.
“The news today about the possible successors seems to indicate that odds are a younger man will be [the next pope],” the Rev. Charles Adams said.
“A young pope is going to be pope for a long time,” Grant said. “They weren’t ready to make that long term commitment to somebody last time, apparently. I suspect that probably now they are.”
The question remains what will become of the man currently holding the position at the end of his papacy.
“Benedict has said that he will spend his life quietly in a monastery,” Adams said. “He’s an introvert, unlike John Paul II, he is a private person. I don’t think it will be hard for him to escape into a life of study and prayer. It fits his personality.”
The world will soon be waiting for the traditional clouds of white smoke over St. Peter’s Square. Those plumes will communicate to the world the conclusion of the conclave and the proclamation of the next pope. Social media will also be communicating the event to the world, but in a new, and much different, way.
“I bet you we know more about the new pope within hours than we have known about any previous pope,” Grant said. “They will have done their homework and they will get it out there for us.”