Pope Celestine V’s name has been the one most cited in the news and the most searched online in relation to Pope Benedict XVI's Monday resignation. Yet a historical comparison between the two popes does not reveal Benedict's action to be an escape from duty, as Celestine's was, but rather an act of government. To be more precise, Benedict's resignation represents a reform, perhaps the largest in the Catholic Church's post-Council history.
Benedict’s “grand refusal,” unlike that of Celestine, modifies customs rather than solidifying them. It is not an unrepeatable exception, or an accident to avoid, but could become an example to follow. It essentially changes the material constitution of the Church and introduces a precedent that any successor from now on will have to face, without the shelter of tradition.
After Monday, it will be difficult for any “old” pope to avoid scrutiny of his age in this era of global leadership and exercise of 24-hour global responsibility, which increases with each passing year. Benedict's choice offers a broad-reaching reform and reveals, ultimately, a conservative mind.
Because the spiritual monarchy of a pope is absolute, in order to remain so it cannot be measured in biological time. Moreover, the example of a papacy that closes seven years after the pope's election comes just once in a millenium. This has been the lone authentic, and in any event, surprising, reform that could have been expected from a sincerely conservative pope.
Otherwise one could not explain how a pope in his 80s, knowing he does not have much time in front of him, dedicated half of his days to scripture -- and thus to the future of the Church -- rather than to traveling or meeting people, both things of the present. On the threshold of a new world, Saint Augustine, too, turned his eye to history more so than his contemporaries, convinced that secularism could be confronted in the span of a generation and that the reconquest of lost lands did not require new leaders, but rather new seeds.
Those seeds, however, require freshness and vitality in addition to writing. While pondering his decision, Benedict must have had his eyes on the upcoming global gathering in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for World Youth Day. Not surprisingly, in the last few months, many people were amazed that there was even talk of the pope's planned trip to Brazil. South America is where half of the world’s Catholics live, and where the Church increasingly has an obligation to show its vitality.
The pope who will take the field this summer at Maracanà knows that after Benedict XVI’s choice, nothing is as it was before. At the end of regulation time, the moment will come for him, too, in the locker room of his own conscience, to decide whether or not to go into overtime.
This piece has been translated from the Italian and originally appeared on HuffPost Italy.