Pope Benedict is to resign his office at the end of this month after declaring he was too old to carry on as head of the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict XVI will step down on February 28, the Vatican said today, adding the announcement was a surprise.
A Vatican statement said the 85-year-old Pope was unable to continue in office due to his age and diminishing strength, and the papacy would remain vacant until a successor is elected.
He is the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new Pope before the end of March, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a Pope does not have to be observed.
The Pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals this morning.
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry," he told the cardinals.
"I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering.
"However, 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 St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary – strengths which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately the ministry entrusted to me."
The last Pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.
The Pope called his choice “a decision of great importance for the life of the church”.
There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner as was the case when Pope Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
When Benedict was elected Pope he was 78 and already the oldest to take office in nearly 300 years. He had been already planning to retire as the Vatican’s chief orthodoxy watchdog to spend his final years writing in the “peace and quiet” of his native Bavaria.
Ordained as a priest in 1951, Joseph Ratzinger established himself as a highly regarded university theologian by the late 1950s and was appointed a full professor in 1958.
After a long career as an academic, he was appointed Archbishop of Munich and cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1977.
In 1981, he settled in Rome when he became Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of the most important dicasteries of the Roman Curia.
From 2002 until his election as Pope in 2005, he was also Dean of the College of Cardinals, and as such the first among equals among the cardinals.
Prior to becoming Pope, he was a major figure on the Vatican stage for a quarter of a century as one of the most respected, influential and controversial members of the College of Cardinals.
Contenders to be his successor include Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican’s office for bishops.
Longshots include Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
All cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave, the secret meeting held in the Sistine Chapel where they cast ballots to elect a new pope. As per tradition, the ballots are burned after each voting round; black smoke that snakes out of the chimney means no pope has been chosen, while white smoke means a pope has been elected.
Popes are allowed to resign; church law specifies only that the resignation be “freely made and properly manifested.”
Only a handful have done so, however and there’s good reason why it has not become commonplace: Might the existence of two Popes – even when one has stepped down – lead to divisions and instability in the church? Might a new resignation precedent lead to pressures on future popes to quit at the slightest hint of infirmity?
Benedict himself raised the possibility of resigning if he were simply too old or sick to continue on in 2010, when he was interviewed for the book “Light of the World.”
“If a Pope clearly realises that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign,” Benedict said.
The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had an intimate view as Pope John Paul II, with whom he had worked closely for nearly a quarter-century, suffered through the debilitating end of his papacy.
Full statement from Pope Benedict XVI
"I have convoked you 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.
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.
"I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, 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.
"For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
"Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects.
"And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.
"BENEDICTUS PP XVI"