NEW YORK — Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement Monday that he was stepping down because he was too elderly and infirm for the job was the first papal resignation in 598 years.
It put Benedict among the handful, out of the 265 recognized popes in history, who have resigned as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
The circumstances behind the other departures generally had nothing to do with age or health, according to Vatican historians and references.
The last pope to resign, Gregory XII, did so in 1415, 10 years into his tenure, in the midst of a leadership crisis in the church known as the Great Western Schism. Three rival popes had been selected by factions of the church, and a group of bishops called the Council of Constance were trying to heal the schism.
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Donald S. Prudlo, a papal historian at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala., said that Gregory XII offered to resign so that the council could choose a pope that all factions would recognize.
It took two years after Gregory XII’s departure to elect his successor, Martin V.
Other popes known to have resigned:
■ Pope Celestine V: A recluse from Sicily who reluctantly accepted his election in 1294, Celestine V resigned and fled the Vatican after just three months to wander in the mountains.
Celestine formally decreed that popes had the right to resign, and immediately used his new authority. He wrote that he had resigned out of ‘‘the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life.’’
According to a chronology on Christianity.com, the bishop who became his successor, Boniface VIII, was intent on ensuring that Celestine V did not set an example for future popes, and ordered Celestine V seized and imprisoned as he was about to sail to Greece. He died in custody in 1296 at age 81 and was declared a saint in 1313.
■ Benedict IX: One of the youngest popes, Benedict IX was elected at about age 20 in 1032, and became notorious for licentious behavior and for selling the papacy to his godfather, Gregory VI, and then twice reclaiming the position.
One of his resignations came because he wanted to marry. He finally resigned for good in 1045, at age 33.
■ Gregory VI: Considered a man of great reputation, Gregory VI had thought Benedict IX unworthy of the papacy and essentially bribed him to resign.
He was recognized as pope in Benedict’s stead, but when Benedict’s attempt at marriage failed and he wanted to return to the papacy, a power struggle ensued.
A council of bishops called upon Gregory VI to resign after less than two years in office because he had obtained the papacy through bribery. Though Gregory maintained he had done nothing wrong, he agreed to resign.
During his struggle with Benedict IX, both popes remained in the city for several months, during which they both claimed to rule the church.
Clergy members called on the German Emperor Henry III, of the Holy Roman Empire, to invade Rome and remove them both. When Henry III arrived, he turned Gregory VI over to the council for a decision.
The resignation of Benedict XVI after an eight-year tenure will be far less strained. It will essentially be a retirement at age 85 for the increasingly weak pontiff.
Benedict’s last day as pope will be Feb. 28, coincidentally the feast day of a revered fifth-century pope, St. Hilarius.