Nearly eight years ago, I know exactly where I was when I heard the joyful news that there was a new Bishop of Rome. I was working in an office, and turned on BBC Radio 4, and heard the ringing of the bells of St Peter’s. I knew then, in my heart, that there was a leader for the world’s Roman Catholics.
At the time, I did not foresee that the man elected that day would resign as Bishop of Rome. As we all know, it is not a decision that has many precedents, but it has been known. As the Code of Canon Law of the Roman Church says,
Can. 332 §2 Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.
This is clearly in the CCL but it has not been used before since the promulgation of the new code in 1983. However, it does seem a sensible move by Benedict XVI.
It is not that long ago since Bishops of Dioceses did not retire: they died in office. I don’t have the relevant reference to hand, but it appears to have started to change in the 1960s. For instance, in the Diocese of Down and Connor in the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century:
|1895||1908||Henry Henry||Appointed 16 August; consecrated 22 September 1895; died 8 March 1908.|
|1908||1914||John Tohill||Appointed 5 August; consecrated 20 September 1908; died 4 July 1914.|
|1915||1928||Joseph MacRory||Appointed 18 August; consecrated 14 November 1915; translated toArmagh 22 June 1928.|
|1929||1962||Daniel Mageean||Appointed 31 May; consecrated 25 August 1929; died 18 January 1962.|
|1962||1982||William Philbin||Translated from Clonfert; appointed 5 June 1962; retired 24 August 1982; died 23 August 1991.|
|1982||1990||Cahal Daly||Translated from Ardagh and Clonmacnoise; appointed 24 August 1982; translated to Armagh 6 November 1990.|
|1991||2008||Patrick Walsh||Appointed titular bishop of Ros Cré and auxiliary bishop of Down and Connor on 6 April 1983; ordained bishop 15 May 1983; appointed diocesan bishop of Down and Connor on 18 March 1991; retired 22 February 2008.|
It can be clearly seen that the first Bishop of Down & Connor to resign in modern time rather than die in office was Bishop William Philbin, who resigned in August 1982, and died some time later in 1991.
To me it seems eminently sensible that the Bishop of Rome also has the chance to resign and I am pleased that Benedict XVI has started the practice by doing so himself.
I wish him every blessing in his retirement and assure him of my prayers and those of my brother priests in the Fraternity. We will be celebrating Votive Masses pro eligendo Summo Pontifice on days that are not Feasts or Solemnities until the election of the new Bishop of Rome. The Vicar General will issue an instruction as to the correct wording to be used in the Eucharistic Prayer to all Priests of the Fraternity.