Pope Benedict XVI is assisted as he arrives to attend a
meeting with seminarians at the Romano Maggiore seminary in
Rome earlier this month. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Pope Benedict said in a historic announcement he no
longer had the mental and physical strength to run the Roman
Catholic Church and would become the first pontiff in more than
700 years to resign, leaving his inner circle "incredulous".
Church officials tried to relay a climate of calm confidence
in the running of a 2,000-year-old institution but the
decision could lead to one of the most uncertain and unstable
periods in centuries for a Church besieged by scandal and
The Church has been rocked during Benedict's nearly
eight-year papacy by child sexual abuse crises and Muslim
anger after the pope compared Islam to violence. Jews were
upset over rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier and there was
scandal over the leaking of the pope's private papers by his
In the announcement read to cardinals in Latin, the
German-born pope, 85, said: "Well aware of the seriousness of
this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the
ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of St Peter ...
"As from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours the See of Rome,
the See of St. Peter will be vacant and a conclave to elect
the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those
whose competence it is."
The pope, known for his conservative doctrine, did not intend
to influence the decision of the cardinals who will enter a
secret conclave to elect a successor, Vatican spokesman
Father Lombardi Federico said.
Benedict stepped up the Church's opposition to gay marriage,
underscored the Church's resistance to a female priesthood
and to embryonic stem cell research.
A new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics could
be elected as soon as Palm Sunday, on March 24 and be ready
to take over by Easter a week later, he said.
EX-POPE AND REIGNING POPE
Lombardi said the pope did not fear a possible "schism" but
several popes in the past, including Benedict's predecessor
John Paul, refrained from stepping down precisely because of
the confusion and division that could be caused by having an
"ex-pope" and a reigning pope living at the same time.
This could create a particularly difficult problem if the
next pope is a progressive who influences such teachings as
the ban on women priests and artificial birth control and its
insistence on a celibate priesthood.
"This is disconcerting, he is leaving his flock," said
Alessandra Mussolini, a parliamentarian who is granddaughter
of Italy's wartime dictator.
"The pope is not any man. He is the vicar of Christ. He
should stay on to the end, go ahead and bear his cross to the
end. This is a huge sign of world destabilisation that will
weaken the Church."
The pope's elder brother Georg Ratzinger, a frail 89-year-old
priest who shares the pope's passion for music, told
reporters in the Bavarian town of Regensburg where he once
conducted the cathedral choir that he had been "very
surprised" to learn of his brother's resignation.
"He alone can evaluate his physical and emotional strength,"
Lombardi said Benedict would first go to the papal summer
residence south of Rome and then move into a cloistered
convent inside the Vatican walls. It was not clear if
Benedict would have a public life.
The last Pope to resign willingly was Celestine V in 1294
after reigning for only five months, his resignation was
known as "the great refusal" and was condemned by the poet
Dante in the "Divine Comedy". Gregory XII reluctantly
abdicated in 1415 to end a dispute with a rival claimant to
NO SPECIFIC ILLNESS, NO DEPRESSION
Lombardi said Benedict's decision showed "great courage". He
ruled out any specific illness or depression and said the
decision was made in the last few months "without outside
While the pope had slowed down recently - he started using a
cane and a wheeled platform to take him up the long aisle in
St Peter's Square - he had given no hint recently that he was
mulling such a dramatic decision.
"I am really surprised," said Ricardo Rodriguez, a Portuguese
tourist in St Peter's Square. "I hope the next pope can be
better than this one doing the best for the world and
Catholics," he said.
Elected in 2005 to succeed the enormously popular John Paul,
Benedict never appeared to feel comfortable in a job he said
he never wanted. He had wanted to retire to his native
Germany to pursue his theological writings, something which
he will now do from a convent inside the Vatican.
The resignation means that cardinals from around the world
will begin arriving in Rome in March and after preliminary
meetings, lock themselves in a secret conclave.
There has been growing pressure on the Church for the
cardinals to shun European contenders and choose a pope from
the developing world in order to better reflect parts of the
globe where most Catholics live and where the Church is
"MIND AND BODY"
The pope told the cardinals that in order to govern "...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 recognise my incapacity to adequately
fulfil the ministry entrusted to me."
He referred to "today's world, subject to so many rapid
changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the
life of faith".
Before he was elected pope, the former Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger, was known by such critical epithets as "God's
rottweiler" because of his stern stand on theological issues.
After a few months, he showed his mild side but he never drew
the kind of adulation that had marked the 27-year papacy of
his predecessor John Paul.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the worldwide
Anglican communion at odds with the Vatican over women
priests, said he had learned of the pope's decision with a
heavy heart but complete understanding.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the pope's decision must
be respected if he feels he is too weak to carry out his
duties. British Prime Minister David Cameron said: "He will
be missed as a spiritual leader to millions."
Elected to the papacy on April 19, 2005 when he was 78 - 20
years older than John Paul was when he was elected - Benedict
ruled over a slower-paced, more cerebral and less impulsive
CHEERS AND SCANDAL
But while conservatives cheered him for trying to reaffirm
traditional Catholic identity, his critics accused him of
turning back the clock on reforms by nearly half a century
and hurting dialogue with Muslims, Jews and other Christians.
Under the German's meek demeanour lay a steely intellect
ready to dissect theological works for their dogmatic purity
and debate fiercely against dissenters.
After appearing uncomfortable in the limelight at the start,
he began feeling at home with his new job and showed that he
intended to be pope in his way.
Despite great reverence for his charismatic, globe-trotting
predecessor -- whom he put on the fast track to sainthood and
whom he beatified in 2011 -- aides said he was determined not
to change his quiet manner to imitate John Paul's style.
A quiet, professorial type who relaxed by playing the piano,
he managed to show the world the gentle side of the man who
was the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer for nearly a
quarter of a century.
The first German pope for some 1,000 years and the second
non-Italian in a row, he travelled regularly, making about
four foreign trips a year, but never managed to draw the
oceanic crowds of his predecessor.
The child abuse scandals hounded most of his papacy. He
ordered an official inquiry into abuse in Ireland, which led
to the resignation of several bishops.
Scandal from a source much closer to home hit in 2012 when
the pontiff's butler, responsible for dressing him and
bringing him meals, was found to be the source of leaked
documents alleging corruption in the Vatican's business
dealings, causing an international furore.
Benedict confronted his own country's past when he visited
the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
Calling himself "a son of Germany", he prayed and asked why
God was silent when 1.5 million victims, most of them Jews,
died there during World War Two.
Ratzinger served in the Hitler Youth during World War Two
when membership was compulsory. He was never a member of the
Nazi party and his family opposed Adolf Hitler's regime.