Vatican City, Feb. 11: Pope Benedict XVI has announced he will stand down, stunning the world by delivering one of the most dramatic moments in centuries of Vatican history.
The resignation will be the first papal voluntary abdication in 719 years — the last was known as the “great refusal” by Celestine V in 1294 and was condemned by Dante in the Divine Comedy.
Pope Benedict cited advanced years and frailty but showed characteristic tough-mindedness and unpredictability by saying he would resign on February 28.
Speaking in Latin to a small gathering of cardinals at the Vatican this morning, Benedict, 85, said that after examining his 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 leading the Roman Catholics.
The statement, soon translated into seven languages, ricocheted around the globe.
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 defections.
Several Popes in the past, including Benedict’s predecessor John Paul, refrained from stepping down even when severely ill, 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 insistence on a celibate priesthood.
A shy, tough-minded theologian who seemed to relish writing books more than greeting stadium crowds, Benedict was elected by fellow cardinals in 2005 after the death of John Paul II. An often divisive figure, Benedict spent much of his papacy in the shadow of his beloved predecessor.
Above all, Benedict’s tenure was overshadowed by clerical abuse scandals, a scandal of leaked documents from within the Vatican itself and tangles with Jews, Muslims and Anglicans. But his papacy perhaps was not so confrontational as many had feared of the man they called “God’s Rottweiler” for his tenacious defence of Church doctrine.
At a news conference, chief Vatican spokesperson Fr Federico Lombardi said the Pope did not fear a possible “schism” in the Church.
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 after he resigns.
A new leader of Roman Catholics could be elected as soon as Palm Sunday, on March 24, and be ready to take over by Easter a week later, Lombardi said. ( )
“The Pope took us by surprise,” said Lombardi. He said the Pope did not display strong emotions as he made his announcement, but spoke with “great dignity, great concentration and great understanding of the significance of the moment”.
The announcement even caught the Pope’s elder brother Georg Ratzinger off guard, indicating just how well kept a secret it was.
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 — but few had expected him to resign. Lombardi ruled out any specific illness or depression.
Joseph Curran, a professor of religious studies, said modern medicine prolonging the life of people had posed difficulties for institutions whose leaders usually rule for life. “His resignation is a tremendous act of humility and generosity…. He is setting a wonderful example,” Curran said.