Remembering the day when lightning struck at the Vatican

Eight years ago today, lightning struck the dome of St. Peter’s basilica—twice! The building was not significantly damaged by that extraordinary event; over the centuries the Vatican basilica has endured worse abuse.

But the shock-waves from the Vatican reached around the world on February 11, 2013. Because that was also the day that Pope Benedict XVI said that “with full freedom I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome.”

The effect of the Pope’s resignation was truly electric. He made his announcement during what had been expected to be a routine consistory: a meeting of the cardinals present in Rome. The assembled prelates had come to the apostolic palace expecting to give their formal approval for three canonizations. Having dutifully carried out that business, they settled back to hear the Pope give a short talk.

The sedate atmosphere in the room changed radically when one reporter—more alert than others, no doubt, and more comfortable with the Latin language Pope Benedict used—let out a gasp. The Holy Father had delivered a thunderbolt of his own.

No one was prepared for the Pope’s resignation. Only a very few of his aides had been advised of his plan; there had been no rumors circulating. And while a papal resignation was not an unforeseen possibility—both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had discussed it as a theoretical option—it had not occurred in several hundred years.

Pope Benedict gave only a general explanation of his reasons for stepping down:

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.

At the time, reading those words, I concluded that the Pope knew something we didn’t know: something about a dramatic deterioration of his health. Perhaps he had learned that dementia was setting in, I thought. Evidently I was wrong. Eight years later, approaching his 94th birthday, he is increasingly frail, and his energies are understandably diminished, but by all accounts his mind remains sharp.

So we ordinary Catholics are left wondering whether we fully understand the reasons for Pope Benedict’s resignation—whether he was prompted not just by his declining strength, but by some other factor that he did not disclose. That uncertainty has prompted some people to question whether Pope Benedict really did resign: whether there was some ambiguity or irregularity about the process that left him with at least some portion of lingering papal authority. Those questions have been answered, to my satisfaction, by Benedict himself. Yes, he did resign, of his own free will. No, he is not in any sense still the Roman Pontiff. There is one Pope today: Pope Francis.

Canon law did not require Pope Benedict to give any fuller explanation of his reasons for resignation. For better or worse, he chose to provide no details. Surely he knew that there would be speculation about his undeclared motives, but he did not encourage that speculation. Instead he asked for our prayers, and I do pray for him often.

Nevertheless today, with the benefit of hindsight—knowing that Pope Benedict would still be alive in 2021, knowing what has happened to the universal Church since he resigned—I wish it hadn’t happened.


Originally published at

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