In the spring of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI stopped in Aquila, Italy, to pray at the shrine of St. Celestine V.
The pope left his pallium -- a wool garment that resembles a yoke, symbolizing bonds between a shepherd and his flock -- on this medieval pope's tomb. Then, 15 months later, he visited a cathedral outside Rome to pray before the relics, once again, of St. Celestine V.
Few noticed Benedict's actions. So who was this saint? He was the elderly priest who was elected pope in 1294, "somewhat against his will," noted theologian Scott Hahn of Franciscan University of Steubenville. Before long, Pope Celestine V issued a decree allowing occupants of St. Peter's throne to step down -- a step he then proceeded to take.
Looking back, it appears Benedict's visit to shrines honoring this particular pope were "probably more than pious acts," noted Hahn on his Facebook page. "More likely, they were profound and symbolic gestures of a very personal nature, which conveyed a message that a pope can hardly deliver any other way."
This was a message consistent with the 86-year-old pope's stunning announcement this week -- days before the start of Lent -- that he would end his eight-year papacy on Feb. 28. Although it has been seven centuries since the voluntary resignation of a pope, this option remains in canon law and was affirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1975 and the Blessed John Paul II in 1996.
Benedict said he was thinking about the future of the papacy, not the past: "In today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."