BACKGROUNDER: Pope Benedict XVI is 3rd Pontiff in history to resign
While Pope Benedict XVI is the first pontiff to resign in many centuries; news reports have conflicted on which pope(s) resigned first. The Associated Press was among some that reported that the last pope to resign was Gregory XII, in the fifteenth century. That particular Pope Gregory was in the midst of the Great Schism, creating new cardinals as part of a power play. Meanwhile, several clerics were claiming the title of Pope concurrently—including a Benedict XIII and an Alexander V. After Gregory XII announced his resignation through his representatives, the cardinals he had named remained in place, thanks to a prior agreement.
Pope Gregory XII was not the earliest Pontiff to resign, though. That distinction goes to Pope Celestine V (the 5th), who was Pontiff for only five months—from July-December— in 1294. Born Pietro di Murrone in Naples, he joined a Benedictine monastery, and seemed ill suited to political intrigue and power grabs. Celestine is the only pope to have undergone a double-papal ordination, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia. The first of these ordinations took place because King Charles of Naples refused to wait for all the cardinals to arrive; and he proceeded without them!
As Pope, Celestine did not deal resolutely with political power, greed of kings and ambitious cardinals. His acceding to the wishes of so many rival powers is said to have led to his own ruin, and to the Great Schism. He abdicated in December of 1294 and died less than two years later.
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