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Deja Vu

March 1, 2013

Stepping Aside


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2013: When Pope Benedict XVI announced he intended to resign, he claimed his “strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited” to the office, and more recently promised “unconditional reverence and obedience” to his successor. The New York Times reports on life after a papal resignation:

Pope Benedict XVI will keep the name Benedict XVI and become the Roman pontiff emeritus or pope emeritus, the Vatican announced on Tuesday, putting an end to days of speculation on how the pope will be addressed once he ceases to be the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics on Thursday.

Benedict, the first pope to resign voluntarily in six centuries, will dress in a simple white cassock, forgoing the mozzetta, the elbow-length cape worn by some Catholic clergymen, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters at a news briefing.

Thursday will be a day of goodbyes, to the cardinals already present in Rome, and later to some members of the Curia. In the afternoon, he will depart for Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of popes, where he will remain until restorations are complete on the Vatican convent where he will live out his days.

1086: The Insei system, or “cloistered rule,” dominated Japan’s late Heian period. What began as Emperor Shirakawa’s retirement from the ritual responsibilities of the imperial court was adopted as a form of ritualized abdication that would define the structure of Japanese political life. Historian George Bailey Sansom explains why these emperors wished to rule—at rest:

Although the practice of cloister government began with the abdication of the Emperor Shirakawa in 1086, it arose naturally from certain long-standing habits in Japanese life. The demands of ceremonial and family duty lay heavy not only on the sovereign but also on most men of rank. They were so exacting that it was common for the head of a great institution or a great house to retire at an early age, as to spend his late years, if not in peace, at least free from the burden of social obligation.

It is certain that some of the most capable emperors abdicated so as to rid themselves of the load of ritual duties or the danger of palace conspiracies and to devote their talents to the business and pleasure of exercising real power. Most of them “entered religion” and were given the appellation of Daijō Hō-ō or Sacred Ruler.

It remains to be seen how much influence Benedict will retain in retirement—or if he will at all follow the pattern of shadow rule established by Japan’s Cloistered Emperors. But when the conclave of Cardinals convenes to choose his successor, they would perhaps do well to linger on the lines of Koga Michiteru, a 12th century Japanese poet and courtier:

even as frost lingers
spring winds
call forth new shoots
from withered reeds.

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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