'God Told Me to Resign'

Apparently, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI recently told this to a friend, according to the unnamed source, and as reported by the Catholic news agency, Zenit. Benedict says that a mystical experience of hearing God's "voice" is the primary reason he stepped down this past winter.

Reading this shocking news, I immediately thought of the only other pope in history to willingly resign.

In 1294, Celestine V was pope for a few short months. He was completely unsuited for the job, out of his depth, and submitted his resignation to the College of Cardinals just before Christmas. I wrote a book about this episode in medieval history, and in the research I discovered that the cardinal who replaced Celestine as pope, Cardinal Gaetani, had actually been conniving for Celestine's abdication for weeks.

Before he was elected Pope Boniface VIII, Cardinal Gaetani helped Celestine to rationalize his abdication, creating an acceptable precedent according to canon law. Then, once he became pope, Boniface had the retired Celestine hunted down in the countryside, and imprisoned, where Celestine died under mysterious circumstances two years later.

But here's why I thought of Celestine as soon as I heard the account of why Benedict says he resigned: One legend, heard even during Celestine's lifetime, has Gaetani devising a scheme to trick Celestine in a way that's worthy of a Sherlock Holmes story. While Celestine was still on the throne, Gaetani created a megaphone device that would connect to Celestine's sleeping quarters from an adjoining room. Then, he employed a suitably angelic voice and sent whispering, reassuring "locutions" into the sleeping pope's room, visiting him with "divine" encouragement to resign. Celestine was just simple enough to believe that what he heard were really the words of God.

Pope Benedict XVI, in contrast, was one of the most brilliant holy fathers in history. But I wouldn't put it past the Vatican curia to play such a trick in our own time.

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation (Image/Random House, 2012).