Lost in all of the media coverage and commentary concerning Pope Benedict XVI's impending resignation is an important question: Why did he choose to announce his resignation on February 11?
There are the mundane answers, of course. The Holy Father was presiding over a consistory to name three new saints, and that meant that a significant number of cardinals were present. But the Pope set the date of the consistory, and as his own statement notes, "I have convoked you [the cardinals] to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church." In other words, he knew what he intended to do at the time he called the consistory.
Likewise, considering how exhausting the Holy Father found Holy Week services last year, it's hardly surprising that, if he was intent on resigning, he would want to be out of office before Holy Week 2013, and, given the importance of Holy Week, he would want his successor in office by then. But that still doesn't answer the question: Why announce his resignation on February 11? Is there any significance to the date?
As I've noted many times in the past, Pope Benedict is very much aware of the symbolism of certain dates. He signed his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum on June 29, 2007, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, because the revival of the Traditional Latin Mass was a step toward unity with the liturgically traditional Eastern Orthodox, and the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, like the Feast of Saint Andrew (November 30), has long been a day of special outreach to the Orthodox. On the same date, he authorized the public release of "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church"—a document I remain convinced will be seen by history as one of the most important of his pontificate, because it lays the groundwork for all future ecumenical efforts.
Likewise, in 2009, when Pope Benedict signed the Apostolic Constitution that paved the way for entire Anglican congregations to return to Rome, he chose October 20—the Feast of Saint Paul of the Cross—to do so. Saint Paul of the Cross spent most of his life praying for the conversion of England, and the order that he founded, the Passionists, are credited with the revival of Catholicism in England in the 19th century. (See Saint Paul of the Cross and the Conversion of England for more details.)
So it's natural to assume that Pope Benedict may have chosen to make his announcement on February 11 for a reason. February 11 is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, commemorating the first apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette Soubirous. Benedict's devotion to the Mother of God is well known but also to be expected in a pope, so choosing to make the announcement on a Marian feast would perhaps in itself be unremarkable.
On the other hand, Joseph Ratzinger was born on April 16, the Feast of St. Bernadette Soubirous, and the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes has a particular importance to the papacy. On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX, in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus, had formally proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. And on March 25, 1858 (the Feast of the Annunciation), Our Lady of Lourdes confirmed Pius IX's action by declaring to Saint Bernadette, "I am the Immaculate Conception." In light of the First Vatican Council's later (1870) definition of the doctrine of papal infallibility, Pius's action is seen as an exercise of papal infallibility.
In other words, if Pope Benedict did choose the date of his announcement for its symbolic value, he likely intended it to reaffirm the office and the authority of the papacy—knowing, of course, that some would try to portray his resignation as undermining that office and its authority.
All of this is speculation, of course, but it fits in well with Pope Benedict's other uses of symbolic dates throughout his pontificate.
Now, what about February 28, the date on which the Holy Father's resignation will become effective? Your guess is as good as mine. If you see some symbolism in that date, please share your thoughts in the comments. Keep in mind, though, that Benedict's use of symbolic dates has been confined to the liturgical calendar; in other words, significant events in secular history that have occurred on February 28 are unlikely to have had any bearing on his decision. And, in the end, it may simply be that the end of the month seemed appropriate.
(Pope Benedict XVI signs the guest book at United Nations headquarters April 18, 2008, in New York City. Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)