What do we call a retired Pope?

There are many, many questions flying through the ether following Pope Benedict XVI’a stunning announcement that he will be resigning the Petrine Office effective 28 February 2012. And yet, as at least one of my colleagues has already pointed out, most of them are pretty trivial, maybe because most of the substantive questions are already answered for those who care. And one of the most persistent questions I see is also arguably the most trivial: the question of title. What will we call a retired Pope?

For Catholics, at least for the more traditionally-minded of our tribe, protocol and formality is a BIG deal. If you need convincing, just consider the mere existence, let alone the success, of James-Charles Noonan, Jr.’s book The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church (Viking, 1996; a revised second edition came out in 2012 from Sterling). Titles, choir dress, table setting: it’s all in there, and in some contexts it probably is important to know.

But I digress; back to the subject at hand. Dr. Ed Peters argues well that Benedict XVI will return to the status of a cardinal, albeit a superannuated one, too old to vote in future conclaves even if he wanted to (which he has already made clear he does not intend to do). This makes good sense on a practical level: cardinals enjoy a long list of universal faculties, meaning they are independent of the jurisdiction of any diocesan bishop (save that of the Bishop of Rome). As Peters correctly asks, “Could we really imagine the alternative: a former pope being subjected to the jurisdiction of someone other than the next pope?” It is a rhetorical question, for surely we cannot.

However, on 12 February 2013 the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, indicating that, while much is yet being worked out, it was certain he would not hold the title of cardinal, but might conceivably be referred to as “bishop emeritus of Rome.”

Personally, I suspect we probably won’t have much need to call him anything. All signs indicate that once the dust settles and the next Bishop of Rome is duly elected, the man who has been Benedict XVI for nearly eight years is going to step into a quiet, prayerful seclusion from which he will rarely, if ever, emerge in this life. He has carried a great burden, and we should know him well enough to realize that, if he is laying it down as he is, then he must be truly worn down indeed. He is not going to strike out on the lecture circuit or do a book tour: he is going to pray, quietly, out of public view, and prepare for his final task: eternity.

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