On Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI joins a handful of his predecessors who resigned as leader of the Catholic Church. In Boston and around the world, the Pope’s startling decision has prompted weeks of reaction, reflection and curiosity.

Father Kevin Culligan, a Carmalite priest who lives in a small Catholic monastery in Brighton, empathizes with the Pope’s frailty. Culligan is 77 and was recently diagnosed with early stage dementia. He still preaches on Sunday and writes and edits for the monastery’s publications, but says he has trouble with steps and needs to be careful when walking.

“So just the liturgical aspect of negotiating an altar and distributing communion gets affected,” Culligan says. “You see it with the Pope, and you just realize, particularly when you’ve been diagnosed as I have, I have to be very attentive to the signs of diminishment.”

Culligan says he thinks the Pope’s decision to resign was a good one.

“Bishops are asked to submit their resignation at 75, and priests start the retirement process at 70,” Culligan says. “So there’s no reason for us to assume that he has to continue to the end of his days, particularly if his health is beginning to fail.” 

Indeed, the Pope cited his increasing frailty as his reason for stepping down. His relatively short papacy – less than 8 years – has been fraught with controversy, including clergy sexual abuse scandals, accusations of insensitivity to Jews and Muslims, and alleged homophobia.

Speculation about the next pope has been intense, including the mention of long shot American names like New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

The Pope's Predecessors  

Since it's been 600 years since a Pope resigned, I asked local scholars to help put Pope Benedict's decision into a broader historical context. 

"There have probably been 4 or 5 popes who have resigned, but all but one of them rescinded under duress,” says Richard Gaillardetz, professor of theology at Boston College. “Either an emperor or some political figure, maybe even local clergy forced them to resign." 

Gaillardetz says Gregory XII, the last pope to resign in 1415, was promised he would be recognized as the legitimate Pope – there were two others claiming the job – but only if he promised to resign. 

"So when people talk about the last pope to resign, I actually think the last one that fits what Benedict is doing is not the one that took place in 1415, because he was sort of forced to, but Celestine V in 1294,” he says.

Celestine V’s story takes place in modern-day Italy.

"The papacy had been vacant for two years largely because of a dispute between two rival groups of cardinals, and there was this very obscure, very simple, very elderly hermit Pietro del Marrone who issued this prophecy,” Gaillardetz says. 

Pietro del Marrone prophesized that God was going to visit judgment on the cardinals if they didn't elect a pope.

“Well, lo and behold, the dean of the college of cardinals gets the bright idea that maybe this guy's the answer ... so he suggests that they elect him as pope.” Gaillardetz says. “He innocently accepts this election, only to discover that nobody was really taking him seriously."

Pope Celestine resigned, hoping that he could go back to the life of a pious hermit, but instead his successor threw him in prison and he died of an infection a few years later.

How is this similar to Pope Benedict?

"So what's similar to our current situation is Celestine V decided he wasn't up to the task,” Gaillardetz says. “Now, Benedict’s obviously a different situation. But he also recognized that there had been a diminishment of his abilities because of his poor health. And he came to a similar assessment that he wasn’t up to the task.”  

Gregory XII

But Gaillardetz’s colleague, James Weiss, an episcopal priest and a professor of Catholic Church history at Boston College, says Pope Benedict’s decision is not that different from Gregory XII  in 1415.

"In both cases the church was in great organizational turmoil,” Weiss says. “In Benedict’s case, when he says his health is not up to the job, what he’s reflecting is the fact that the Vatican administration has fallen apart under his leadership.”

Weiss says that Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was able to maintain a veil of secrecy around many of the problems within the church.

“Once Benedict became Pope, a lot if it comes out,” Weiss says. “The scandals, the financial problems, the complexity of the worldwide sexual abuse issues have just become too much for him to handle.”

A Modern Precedent

Both Weiss and Gaillardetz agree that the Pope is setting a modern precedent.

“I think its setting a precedent in the sense that it will free future popes who feel that they are not up to the office to admit that fact, rather than heroically trying to cover it up,” Gaillardetz says. “And I think it will demystify the papacy ... it allows for a much more realistic appraisal of the demands of church office in the modern world.” 

A new Pope will likely be confirmed before Easter, according to the Vatican.