On February 11, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Catholic Church and the world when he announced his resignation by saying he no longer had the mental and physical strength to carry on.
At 8pm local time yesterday, he ended his difficult reign, marking the first time in six centuries a pope has resigned instead of ruling for life.
But what do we really know of his health or that of other popes before him?
The Vatican recently confirmed Benedict had a pacemaker for years, indicating a long-standing heart problem. And his older brother told the press that age had taken its toll.
Other observers have noticed the pope’s reduced energy. The press reported that he was ferried to the altar at St. Peter’s for Midnight Mass Christmas Eve on a wheeled platform and then appeared to doze off during the service.
Visiting Mexico last year, he awoke at night and couldn’t locate a light switch in his room, then fell and bloodied his head when he hit the bathroom sink.
Beyond these few facts, we know very little about the health problems that led Benedict to announce his retirement. We don’t even really know if his flagging stamina was the true reason behind his resignation.
And while Pope Benedict XVI might be the first Holy Father to voluntarily resign because of old age and deteriorating health, the papacy has a past medical history of poor health. According to the history books, these ailments range from depression to gout to cancer.
According to church law, as long as a pope is able to conduct Mass, he can continue in his role even if he is suffering, in pain or even bedridden, as was the case with Pope Alexander VII.
Pope Alexander VII’s surgeon and confessor tried to persuade him not to go before the crowd on Easter Sunday of 1667, but he did it anyway. The pope died three days later, according to author Wendy J. Reardon in The Deaths of the Popes.”
More than a century later, Pope Clement XIV became known as the pope who drooled and had eyes that “darted in their bulging sockets” as he fearfully clung to walls for fear of a Jesuit assassination attempt. He died after correctly predicting his own death in 1774.
In 1958, Pope Pius XII died after enduring recurring bouts of hiccoughs for five years. At one point, his hiccoughs became so intense, that they tore the lining of his stomach. He died of complications from pneumonia at 82 years old.
Pope John Paul II, was sick until he died on April 2, 2005 at 85 years old. He lived with Parkinson ‘s disease for decades, but he died of cardio-respiratory failure, kidney failure and septic shock.
“Death has never been an issue that has worried popes,” says papal historian Anura Guruge, “Popes talk about no purgatory for popes.” Instead they believe if God is ready for a new pope, he will simply call the current one home to heaven where they will immediately be admitted to God’s house and be in the presence of the Holy Father. Not surprising then, that many popes have gone so far as to express enormous amounts of joy on their death beds.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, was one of the oldest popes when he was elected in 2005 at age 78. In 1991 he had a stroke that reportedly temporarily affected his vision. He fell in 1992 and again 2009. He was also thought to have either arthritis or arthrosis, a similarly painful and debilitating joint condition.
Father Virgilio Elizondo, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said he thinks Pope Benedict XVI made a very difficult but wise decision by resigning. He added that the papacy has a history of unpredictability, and the surprise resignation fits right in.
“I think when you consider the sincerity of the man, when you consider the weight of the universal church, and the greatest variety of issues affecting the church and the rest of the world, I could see how he could come to that decision,” says Elizondo. “What’s really needed is a younger person with more vigor and up-to-date knowledge about what’s happening. I think that’s the rationality behind this pope.”
But not everyone agrees. “This pope’s resigning is essentially overriding God’s will,” said Guruge. “We had suspected that he had more health issues than had been made public. … A pope resigning is really not the right thing to do.”
Pope Benedict XVI was just 73 days away from being the third oldest pope. However, he will remain the fourth oldest pope because his resigned before his 86th birthday. The three older popes were Pope Clement X, who lived to be just over 86 years old; Pope Clement XII, who lived to be 87; and Pope Leo XIII, who before his death at 93 was known as the “eternal pope” because he kept on living! Back then, it might be argued, the job was less demanding because the pope didn’t have to be on television or travel the world or tweet.