February 28

This Day in History

General Interest

Feb 28, 2013:

Pope Benedict resigns

On this day in 2013, less than three weeks after making the unexpected announcement that he would step down, 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI officially resigns. Citing advanced age as the reason for giving up his post as the leader of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church, Benedict was the first pontiff to relinquish power in nearly 600 years. Two weeks after Benedict resigned, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected pope.

The son of a policeman, Benedict was born Joseph Ratzinger in the village of Marktl in Bavaria, Germany, on April 16, 1927. During World War II, he was drafted into the German military, which he deserted toward the end of the war. He was held as a POW by Allied forces for a short time in 1945. Ratzinger went on to be ordained into the priesthood in 1951. Afterward, he served as a professor of theology at several German universities until 1977, when he was appointed the archbishop of Munich and Freising; later that year he was elevated to cardinal. From 1981 to 2005, Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a powerful Vatican office responsible for enforcing Catholic doctrine. In that role, he earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.”

On April 19, 2005, following the death of Pope John Paul II, the 78-year-old Ratzinger was elected the 265th pope. During his eight-year papacy, Benedict championed a conservative agenda while also contending with scandals involving clergy sex-abuse and corruption at the Vatican Bank.

On February 11, 2013, Benedict, the oldest person elected to the papacy since the 18th century, announced he would resign, saying he no longer had the mental and physical strength required to lead one of the world’s largest religious organizations. The move was all but unprecedented, as until that point all popes of the modern era had remained in office until death. The last pope to resign, Gregory XII, did so in 1415 to end a civil war in the church called the Great Western Schism. Prior to that, in 1294, Pope Celestine V quit after just five months in the job (he hoped to return to his life as a hermit but instead his successor had him imprisoned and he died in captivity).

On March 13, 2013, white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel indicated that a conclave of Catholic cardinals had elected a new pope, the 76-year-old Bergoglio. Six days later, in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, he was inaugurated as the Catholic Church’s 266th pontiff. The first South American to helm the church and the first non-European to do so in more than 1,200 years, he also was the first pope to take the name Francis and the first member of the Jesuit order to become pontiff. Francis soon distinguished himself for his humble style (among other things, he opted to live in a Vatican guesthouse rather than the regal papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, where, for more than a century, his predecessors resided) and for his vision for a church focused less on divisive social issues and more on serving the poor and oppressed.

After retiring, Benedict, whose title became pope emeritus, moved into a former convent inside Vatican City.

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