Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign on Feb. 28 because he is too physically weak to continue. His resignation of the papacy is the first in not quite 600 years. A conclave of cardinals from around the world is expected to convene to elect a new pope before the end of March.
The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals Monday morning.
He said that the duties of leading more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide demand "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 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 barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary — strengths which in the last few months, have deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who quit in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.
Benedict also said that his resignation was "a decision of great importance for the life of the church." Indeed it is. As stated, this unexpected resignation sets the stage for the Vatican to hold a conclave to elect a new pope as soon as mid-March, since the traditional mourning time usually followed after the death of a pope is not necessary after a resignation.
There is no frontrunner poised to replace Benedict who was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II. Benedict was elected at age 78. At the time, he was the oldest new pope in almost 300 years. Prior to that, he had been planning his retirement as the Vatican's chief orthodoxy caretaker in order to spend his "golden" years writing in the "peace and quiet" of his native Bavaria.
Possible replacements include Cardinal, archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican's office for bishops.
Long shots include Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, but “conventional wisdom” does not tend toward a pope from the world’s greatest "superpower."
All cardinals under age 80 are allowed, but not required, to participate in the conclave. It will be a secret gathering held in the famed Sistine Chapel. The cardinals will cast ballots to elect a new pope. The ballots are burned after each voting round; black smoke emanating from the chapel’s chimney means no pope has been chosen, while white smoke means a pope has been elected.
Although a rarity, popes are allowed to resign. Canon law declares only that the resignation be "freely made and properly manifested."
Not quite three years ago, Benedict himself raised the possibility of resigning should he become too old or sick. At that time he said, "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."