Pope Benedict XVI
The papacy is one of religion's enduring institutions,
with history teaching that St Peter - or Simon Peter, one of
Christ's disciples - was the first pope within the Catholic
Church. Every pope is seen as St Peter's successor; the
rightful superior to all other bishops.
The rock upon which the Catholic Church was built has been
under severe criticism in recent times, but surprise and
shock were the overwhelming reactions when Pope Benedict XVI,
who is aged 85, announced on Monday night he would resign on
February 28, no longer having the strength to fulfil his
He becomes the first pope in about 600 years to resign.
Several popes in the past, including Benedict's predecessor
John Paul II, refrained from stepping down, even when
severely ill, because of the confusion and division that may
be caused by having a former pope and a reigning pontiff
living at the same time.
The statement by Benedict can be seen as an implied rebuke to
his predecessor, who argued that clinging to life and power
for as long as possible was itself a form of witness to
Christ's suffering. But Benedict said: ''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 ... strength
of both mind and body are necessary.''
The announcement was seen as an act of both courage and
betrayal. Modern medicine prolonging the life of people has
posed difficulties for institutions whose leaders usually
rule for life. Benedict's act is seen by some as setting a
wonderful example. But in Poland, a former secretary to the
late John Paul, who suffered bad health for the last decade
of his life, said, ''You cannot come down from the cross.''
While world leaders were yesterday quick to praise Benedict's
ministry, the Church has been rocked through his nearly
eight-year papacy by a variety of crises, including child
sexual abuse (an issue for the Church that continues to
fester around the world) and Muslim anger. Jews were upset
over rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier and there was a
scandal over the leaking of the Pope's private papers by his
The new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics may
be elected as soon as Palm Sunday, on March 24, and be ready
to take over by Easter a week later. The complex process to
elect a new pope is expected to move quickly because the
Vatican will not have to wait until after the elaborate
services following a pope's death.
The pope who succeeds Benedict will face a situation
unprecedented in modern times: the new pope will have a
former Bishop of Rome in an apartment close by. Benedict has
indicated he will not influence the choice of his successor,
but he already has. With the appointment of his favoured
cardinals from around the world, the Church has moved towards
being a more conservative institution than it was under John
With the population of Roman Catholics strongest in Africa
and South America, there will be political pressure from
within some sectors of the Church for the election of a pope
from outside the traditional areas of service. Ghana's
Cardinal Peter Turkson, Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze,
Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Italy's Angelo Scola have
emerged as some of the leading candidates to succeed
Recent history shows that since 1958, a long-serving pope has
been succeeded by one who has served a much shorter time.
Benedict's predecessor John Paul II served 27 years, but John
Paul I served less than a year before his death. John Paul I
was only 58 when he was elected, 20 years younger than
Benedict, who was 78.
Some commentators say that may convince the cardinals to
elect a younger man - and a younger pope may be preferable as
the Church battles scandal and an increasingly secular world.
But with no outright favourite to succeed Benedict, there may
well be another surprise in store when the papal conclave
makes its decision and the white smoke puffs from the Sistine
Chapel chimney in just a few weeks.