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Popes Who have Resigned in the Past

Rohini Mohan Mar 19, 2020
The 20th century never witnessed the resignation of a pope. However, the 21st century saw the stepping down of Pope Benedict XVI, which has altered our archaic belief that the pope reigns over the papacy until his demise.
Although the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI may have come as a surprise for many, he is not the first pope to have relinquished his post. There have been instances in the past when popes have vacated the papacy for varying reasons and circumstances.
Out of the 266 popes to have been appointed, there are six prominent popes who relinquished this position. However, the world has not witnessed the resignation of a pope since the 15th century and has always assumed that the post is meant to be held from the moment of election until the death of the incumbent pope.
Papal resignation can take place only if the reigning pope steps down voluntarily. The Canon law states that the resignation of the pope should be made without coercion and must be free of any external influences. It also states that the pope wishing to resign must be of sound mind and need not seek permission in order to resign from the Petrine ministry.
Let's learn more about the popes who gave up their post and what made them do so. During the early days, some popes were deposed or considered as antipopes and have thus not been mentioned here.

The Popes Who Resigned

St. Pontian

Predecessor: Urban I
Elected: 21 July 230 AD
Resigned: 28 September 235 AD
Tenure: 5 years approx
Successor: Anterus
St. Pontian became pope under the peaceful reign of Emperor Severus Alexander, who was tolerant towards Christians. However, the next ruler Maximinus Thrax viewed Christians as enemies of the State and severely persecuted them.
Soon after being elected, Pope Pontian was banished and made to work at the mines in Sardinia. Defeated by circumstances and realizing that he may not be able to return, Pontian resigned to enable a new pope to replace him.


Predecessor: John XVII
Elected: January 1004
Resigned: July 1009
Tenure: 5 years
Successor: Sergius I
It is believed that Pope John XVIII was nominated under the supremacy of the Roman family of Crescentii. Pope John XVIII kept himself busy with the administration of the church and was instrumental in ratifying the Diocese of Bamberg.
Very little is known about this pope and there is no mention as to why he chose to abdicate and retire. He is thought to have spent the rest of his life as a recluse at the St. Paul monastery.

Benedict IX

Predecessor: John XIX, Sylvester III, Clement II
Elected: October 1032
Resigned: September 1044
Tenure: 1033-1044
Successor: Sylvester III, Gregory VI, Damasus II
Pope Benedict IX was not only the youngest but also the only pope to have sold his title for an undisclosed sum. Benedict IX was ousted in 1044 and replaced by Sylvester III, however, he managed to regain his lost title within the same year. The next year, Benedict sold his papacy to his uncle, Pope Gregory VI.
Since Gregory VI bought the papacy, he was forced to abdicate and was replaced by Pope Clement II in 1046. Benedict IX once again seized the papal chair upon the death of Pope Clement II. He was eventually excommunicated in 1049 on charges of simony, which he refused to attend. It is claimed that Benedict was repentant of his abuse of power and did penance.

St. Celestine V

Predecessor: Nicholas IV
Elected: 5 July 1294
Resigned: 13 December 1294
Tenure: 161 days
Successor:Boniface VIII
St. Celestine V was the last pope to be elected without a papal conclave or College of Cardinals. Bestowing the pope with the right to abdicate, was perhaps one of the first edicts issued by Celestine V, who never wanted to preside over the papal chair. Five months into his election, he issued the decree for abdication that allowed him to resign.
His decision was so unorthodox that he was captured and imprisoned by his successor Pope Boniface VIII. Pope Celestine V was confined in the castle of Fumone where he eventually died within 10 months.

Gregory XII

Predecessor: Innocent VII
Elected: 30 November 1406
Resigned: 4 July 1415
Tenure: 8 years and 216 days.
Successor: Martin V
The resignation of Pope Gregory XII put an end to the Western or Papal Schism. The Great Schism had caused a rift in the Catholic Church between 1378-1417. During this papacy, there were two antipopes Benedict XII and John XXIII. The Council of Constance decided that all three popes must abdicate.
The Council accepted the resignation of Pope Gregory, deposed John XXII and excommunicated Benedict XIII after he refused to resign.

Benedict XVI

Predecessor: John Paul II
Elected: 19 April 2005
Resigned: 28 February 2013
Tenure: 7 years and 315 days
Successor: Francis
In the last 1000 years only four popes have resigned. Pope Benedict XVI became the only pope to opt for papal resignation since Pope Gregory XII, who relinquished the office 598 years ago in 1415.
Pope Benedict XVI resigned from the Holy See on 28th February 2013 citing old age and infirmity. Thereafter, Pope Francis was elected as the Leader of the Catholic Church and Bishop of Rome on 13th March 2013.
Unlike the past, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was not the result of some political turmoil or power struggle. It was a mere declaration that it was time for him to step down and dedicate the rest of his life to prayer.