VATICAN CITY (CBSNewYork/AP) — Declaring that he lacks the strength to do his job, Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday he will resign Feb. 28 — becoming the first pontiff to step down in 600 years.
The 85-year-old pope dropped the bombshell in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprising even his closest collaborators even though he had made clear previously that he would step down if he became too old or infirm to carry on.
Benedict called his choice “a decision of great importance for the life of the church.”
Indeed, the move allows the Vatican to hold a conclave before Easter to elect a new pope, since the traditional nine days of mourning that would follow the death of a pope doesn’t have to be observed.
It will also allow Benedict to hold great sway over the choice of his successor, though he will not himself vote. He has already hand-picked the bulk of the College of Cardinals — the princes of the church who will elect the next pope — to guarantee his conservative legacy and ensure an orthodox future for the church.
“Without doubt this is a historic moment,” said Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a protege and former theology student of Benedict’s who himself is considered a papal contender. “Right now, 1.2 billion Catholics the world over are holding their breath.”
The Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted Benedict’s decision, that he remained fully lucid and took his decision independently.
The pope himself said his “strength… in the last few months has deteriorated in me,” CBS 2’s Lou Young reported.
“Any interference or intervention is alien to his style,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
Father James Martin, a Jesuit editor at America Magazine, said it certainly puts the pope in a position to hold great sway over his successor.
“What struck me is it’s a selfless and noble thing to do,” Martin said.
The Rev. Luke Sweeney, S.T.L., Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of New York, said both physical health and mental focus might have played a role in the pope’s choice to resign.
Sweeney told CBS 2’s Maurice DuBois and Kristine Johnson that he had been in the Vatican in October, and noticed a difference from years earlier.
“The Holy Father looked like he was getting older and weaker, so I presume that physical health and his abilities there are primary, but also, who knows – maybe his mental focus might not be what it was seven, eight years ago,” Sweeney said.
John Allen, the Vatican specialist for the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, called the situation unprecedented. But Allen said that the pope stated a few years ago that he was open to the idea of resigning.
“That under certain circumstances, if he didn’t have the force to continue that he would be obliged to resign. So in a way, Benedict prepared the ground for this,” Allen told WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb. “But the timing, certainly, is a shocker because we had absolutely no indication from the Vatican that this was coming. And precisely because of that, there’s a whole rafter of unanswered questions, beginning with the obvious one of what exactly will the role of a retired pope be but also, obviously, the speculation about who might come next.”
Sweeney said the pope clearly made his decision “not in fear; I’m sure he made it in great peace and hope, and it’s a true act of humility.”
It has been obvious to all that the pope has slowed down significantly in recent years, cutting back his foreign travel and limiting his audiences. He now goes to and from the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica on a moving platform to spare him the long walk down the aisle. Occasionally he uses a cane.
His 89-year-old brother, Georg Ratzinger, said doctors had recently advised the pope not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips.
“His age is weighing on him,” Ratzinger told the dpa news agency. “At this age, my brother wants more rest.”
Benedict emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope requires “both strength of mind and body.”
“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 the demands of being the pope, he told the cardinals.
While no pope has voluntarily left the Throne of St. Peter in almost 600 years, this pope has taken a different course.
“He was close to John Paul (II), and he watched the last couple of years of his life as he lost the vigor and the ability,” said Msgr. Thomas Leonard, pastor of Holy Trinity Church, “and he didn’t want this to happen to him, for the sake of the church, perhaps.”
There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner — the same situation when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
Contenders include Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican’s office for bishops.
Sweeney was taught personally by both Scola and Ouellet.
He said Scola had “a tremendous vision of what the human person is, and a beautiful Italian way of expressing that,” while he called Ouellet a “fantastic and phenomenal teacher; his love of Jesus Christ, the Church, the Blessed Mother, and the way that he expressed it was not just something of theology, but it also really touches on, I think, his view of the world and how he hopes to respond to problems with the world.”
The church could also turn to the developing world to find its next pontiff.
“Probably the most exciting possibilities come from non-traditional places like Africa and Latin America,” said the Rev. Matt Malone of America Magazine.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is among the possibilities, or in Latin America, Cardinal Odilo Pedro-Scherer of Brazil.
Longshots include New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who said he admired Benedict for his humble acknowledgement he can no longer fulfill his duties.
“I would presume that his esteem for the office as successor of St. Peter and the chief pastor of the church universal, that esteem is so high that in all humility he said ‘I can’t do it anymore,'” Dolan told CBS 2’s Tony Aiello.
Although Dolan is popular and backs the pope’s conservative line, being from such a world super power will probably not count in his favor.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Dolan said it would be “highly improbable” for him to be considered for the papacy.
“That’s just way too out of the realm of probability,” Dolan said.
Sweeney did not speculate on Dolan’s chances.
“I think he possesses incredible and wonderful talents in that,” he said. “Every cardinal, of course, is a potential next pope, and I think what he has, and what he brings to the table – the cardinals, I’m sure, will take note of.”
Experts said there is no clear frontrunner, CBS 2’s Dick Brennan reported. Vatican watchers say not to count your votes before you get to the conclave.
“There is an old Roman expression that he who goes into the conclave as pope comes out as cardinal,” Malone said.
Popes are allowed to resign but church law says the decision must be “freely made and properly manifested.” Still, only a handful have done it.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, a dispute among competing papal claimants. The most famous resignation was Pope Celestine V in 1294; Dante placed him in hell for it.
When Benedict was elected in 2005 at age 78, he was the oldest pope chosen in nearly 300 years. At the time, he had already been 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.
On Monday, Benedict said he would serve the church for the remainder of his days “through a life dedicated to prayer.”
The Vatican said immediately after his resignation, which takes effect at 8 p.m. Feb. 28, Benedict would go to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat south of Rome, and then would live in a cloistered monastery.
All cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave, the secret meeting held in the Sistine Chapel where cardinals 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.
There are currently 118 cardinals under age 80 and thus eligible to vote, 67 of whom, including Dolan, were appointed by Benedict.
However, four of them will turn 80 before the end of March. Depending on the date of the conclave, they may or may not be allowed to vote.
Benedict in 2007 passed a decree requiring a two-thirds majority to elect a pope, changing the rules established by John Paul who had decided that the voting could shift to a simple majority after about 12 days of inconclusive voting. Benedict did so to prevent cardinals from merely holding out until the 12 days had passed to push through a candidate who only had only a slim majority.
Given half of the world’s Catholics live in the global south, there will once again be arguments for a pope to come from the developing world.
Whoever it is, he will face a church in turmoil: The sex abuse scandal has driven away thousands of people, particularly in Europe, from the church. Rival churches, particularly evangelical Pentecostal groups in the developing world, pose new competition. And as the pope himself has long lamented, many people in an increasingly secular world simply believe they don’t need God.
The timing of Benedict’s announcement was significant: Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday, the most solemn period on the church’s calendar that culminates with Holy Week and Easter on March 31. It is also the period in which the world witnessed the final days of John Paul’s papacy in 2005.
The timing means that there will be a very big spotlight cast on Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Italian head of the Vatican’s culture office who has long been on the list of “papabile.” Benedict selected him to preside over the Vatican’s spiritual exercises during Lent.
By Easter Sunday the Catholic Church will have a new leader, a potent symbol of rebirth in the church that echoes the resurrection of Christ celebrated on Easter.
Benedict, then known as 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.
Benedict himself raised the possibility of resigning if he were simply too old or sick to continue on, when he was interviewed in 2010 for the book “Light of the World.”
“If a pope clearly realizes 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.
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