Benedict XVI is the first pope to resign in almost 600 years and in all of papal history there have been only four others who are known to have stepped down and they are some of the more colourful characters in Catholicism.
Benedict IX and Gregory VI – A Pope Opera (1032 – 1048)
We begin with the current pope’s namesake Pope Benedict IX, who also holds the distinctions of being the only man to be Pope more than once – he held the office three times – and the only man to sell the papacy.
Unlike the current pope, Benedict IX was a young man when he was made Pontiff in 1032, aged somewhere between 11 and 20.
He is said to have got the top job only due to his family connections and was by all accounts a very bad egg, “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest,” as anti-papal historian Ferdinand Gregorovius put it. While St Peter Damian allegedly described him as “feasting on immorality”.
As well as being accused of committing “many vile adulteries and murders”, he is also said to be the first pope who was primarily homosexual and was said to have held orgies in the Lateran palace.
The scandalous Benedict faced a couple of attempts to oust him, including one in 1036 from which he returned to Rome with the help of Emperor Conrad II, and a second in 1044 in which the opposition forced him from the city and elected John, Bishop of Sabina as Pope Sylvester III.
In April 1045 Benedict IX’s forces returned and expelled his rival. However soon after this it is said he decided to marry and just a month later his godfather, the pious priest John Gratian, paid him to resign the papacy to himself become Pope Gregory VI.
Benedict IX’s Godfather was an entirely different figure, known as a man of great reputation and uprightness of character.
Though it was hailed with joy all round, Gregory VI’s accession did not bring peace to the church. Pope Sylvester III still claimed the papal throne and connived with his allies.
To further complicate things Benedict IX, unable to woo his intended bride, soon regretted his resignation and staked his claim on the papacy once more.
Gregory VI tried to bring about civil and religious order, but his rivals were too strong and confusion only increased.
At this point a number of influential clergy and laity separated themselves from all contenders and called on Emperor Henry III to cross the Alps from Germany and restore order, which he did in 1046.
Gregory VI and Sylvester III presented themselves to the Emperor and both Benedict IX and Sylvester’s claims to the papacy were soon dismissed.
But Gregory VI did not get his way either, the bishops of the synod said that as he had purchased the papacy, it constituted simony and they called on him to resign.
Having no other obvious choice, he did just that, making way for Pope Clement II who then died in 1047 allowing Benedict IX to take the top job once more.
Celestine V – A reluctant pope (1294)
Born Pietro Angelerio in Monlise, Italy to a farming family he soon showed great intelligence and a preference for solitude.
The life of a monk therefore suited him very well and in 1239 he retired to a solitary cavern on the mountain Morrone from where he acquired the name Pietro di Marrone.
Five years later he moved to the Mountain of Mailla in central Italy, where he lived as strictly as possible according to the example of St. John the Baptist and while living there founded the order later named after him, the Celestines.
Following the death of Pope Nicholas IV in April 1292, Morrone sent a letter to the cardinals who were assembled at Perugia to warn them that if they did not elect a pope quickly vengeance would fall upon them.
Latino Malabranca, the aged and ill dean of the College of Cardinals cried out: “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I elect brother Pietro di Morrone.”
When sent for, Morrone refused to accept the papacy and even tried to flee, but was finally persuaded by a deputation of cardinals accompanied by the kings of Naples and Hungary. He was elected as Celestine V on July 5 1294 aged 79.
However after only five months and eight days at the helm he used his right to resign giving his reasons as: “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquillity of his former life.”
Pope Gregory XII – Ending the divide (1406 – 1415)
Born Angelo Corraro in 1326 he became pope at the time of the Western Schism (1394-1423), a time where there were two men claiming to be the true pope.
He was elected in 1406 under the express condition that should rival papal claimant, Antipope Benedict XIII renounce his claim to the papacy he would also renounce his, so that a fresh election would be held and the schism ended.
After a long and complicated process of politicking, and each one having fears of being captured by the rival party, Gregory XII eventually stepped down in July 1415.