The key in becoming a Saint is to know your limitations. Pope St. Celestine V was one such man. He wasn’t the last pope to resign but he was the last canonized pope to take a step down from the chair of St. Peter.
Before he was elected pope in the year 1294, he was a monk on Mt. Murrone. Then, as one papal biographer noted, he withdrew to Mt. Maiella in order to avoid the crowds which flocked around him. But when the cardinals looked to him to succeed Pope Nicholas IV, he was sadly distressed and was torn between the fear of acting against God's will and of being a poor administrator as pope. As time went on, he had realized he had made a mistake. The saintly pope then had the courage to act on his convictions. On his own initiative, he stepped down during the same year he was elected pope.
On February 11, 2013 we woke up this morning to find out that Pope Benedict XVI did exactly what Pope St. Celestine did: he resigned as pope. There are not a lot politicians, not a lot of actors and not a lot successful business leaders who can walk away from the spotlight without looking over their shoulder. Resigning as pope requires a detachment and a determination to “decrease” so that another, namely, his successor, would “increase.” This is not an easy thing to do.
Most everybody, at some point in their life, has to go through this process. At some point we have to say good-bye. Even if a person manages to avoid the painful dilemma of resigning or continuing with one’s profession, one will be at least greeted by death. Indeed, no one escapes death! And paradoxically, us mortals, at the moment of death, have a choice to either voluntarily to resign from this life was we know it or, with every last breath, cling to it.
Like all Saints, Pope St. Celestine V, was well acquainted with the spiritual exercise of meditating on death. Such an exercise involves the mental rehearsal of saying good-bye to the goods of this earth. But the strength of saying good-bye to life on earth is to see beyond it. And the strength of giving up anything- including one’s work –is to see beyond it.
Perhaps this is why Pope St. Celestine V had the courage to do something that was unconventional and even unheard of. And perhaps this is what gave Pope Benedict XVI the courage to do the same thing.