In 1415, Pope Gregory XII was the last pope to retire
Now that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to retire, people are wondering about the last time a pope retired. To get to that we have to go to 1415, and it was not a happy “retirement.”
Everything was going according to plan in 1304. Pope Benedict XI died that year, and the conclave (the meeting of cardinals which elects the pope) was proceeding normally. Except that it kept going on and on. After eleven months(!!), the conclave elected a new pope: Clement V. He was French and lived in France, and so the coronation occurred in France in front of the king. After that, though, he settled in Avignon, France, instead of moving to Rome; he died there in 1314.
The next conclave did not meet for over two years; during that time the Catholic Church had no pope. Eventually the conclave met in Lyons, France and another Frenchman was elected pope, John XXII in 1316. He decided to live in Avignon, France instead of in Rome. As a matter of fact, so did the next five popes, from 1316 to 1377.
(This approximately seventy-year period has been nicknamed the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” from the seventy years that the Jews were held in captivity by the Babylonian Empire in the sixth century BC.)
In the absence of a pope in Rome for such a long time, problems arose in Italy. Eventually Gregory decided to visit Rome in an attempt to restore order. He entered Rome on January 17, 1377. His visit was a rocky one, and he considered returning to Avignon. However, he died in Rome on March 13, 1378.
A new pope was elected in Rome, Urban VI (1378-1389). Once elected, though, his personality and character changed. This caused division among the cardinals. Some of the cardinals gathered and elected a new pope, Clement VII (1378-1394). And where did this new pope live? Avignon. Now two men claimed to be pope.
Both sides continued to elect popes as their own popes died. In 1409 cardinals on both sides agreed to meet at a Council of Pisa. They deposed both popes and elected another pope, Alexander V (1409-1410). However, neither of the other popes agreed to step down: stalemate with three popes. Alexander died the next year, and John XXIII was elected (1410-1415). But he did not die while being pope. This is what happened.
Another Council was called, this time in Constance. John XXIII was deposed at the Council of Constance and placed in prison. The pope in Rome, Gregory XII, resigned. The pope in Avignon was also deposed. (He lived out his life believing he was the true pope.) The Council of Constance elected a new pope, Martin V, and the Catholic Church was back to one man who claimed to be pope.
So there you have it, the last pope to retire was Gregory XII in 1415.
Two notes of interest. The men who claimed to be pope during the “Babylonian Captivity” are considered to be true popes. Those who lived in Avignon and claimed to be popes while there was a pope inRome are officially known as “antipopes,” meaning they were not really popes. Also, the two popes who came out of the Council of Pisa, Alexander V and, upon his death, John XXIII, are also known as antipopes. That is why another man could choose the name “John XXIII” when he became pope in 1958.
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