Pope Benedict XVI will resign on Febraury 28 at 8pm Rome time.
The 85-year old German pontiff made his announcement in Latin to cardinals, who were gathered in Rome to vote on the proclamation of new saints.
“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 cardinals.
The pope said that he was aware that his role, “due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.”
However, he stressed that in today’s world, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith,” “both strength of mind and body are
The first pope to step back from his role for over 500 years, in the 2010 book-length interview “Light in the world,” Benedict had said he would resign if he felt “no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office.”
But few people – in the Catholic Church and in the Vatican – saw the announcement coming.
“We were all taken a bit by surprise”, the Vatican chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, admitted during a Vatican press conference on Monday (Feb. 11).
The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, responded to the pope’s announcement in a short address.
“We feel lost, we are almost in disbelief,” he said according to Lombardi.
Lombardi said that preparations for the conclave that will elect Benedict’s successor are still in the early stages, but that a papal election could be expected in March and the new pope should be elected “by Easter.”
In the period between the resignation and the election of the new pope, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, currently Benedict’s Secretary of State, will act as a caretaker leader of the church.
Lombardi denied that Benedict’s decision was taken as a reaction to the many crises – from the sex abuse scandal in America and in Europe to perceived slights towards Jews and Muslims.
In “Light in the world,” Benedict had stressed that a crisis was not a good moment to step back. “When the danger is great one must not run away,” he had said.
According to Lombardi, Benedict displayed “great courage and great freedom of spirit. It was not an improvised decision.”
In his resignation announcement, Benedict admitted that his strength had “deteriorated” to the extent he came to the realization of his “incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Last year, he had started using a cane to walk while he was wheeled on a moving platform during Vatican celebrations.
Papal resignations are not common, especially in modern times, but not unheard of.
Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, in 1989 and in 1994, had secretly prepared letters offering the College of Cardinals his resignation in case of an incurable disease or other condition that would prevent him from fulfilling his ministry, according to Msgr. Sławomir Oder, postulator of the late pope’s cause.
According to the Jesuit Thomas Reese, former editor of the weekly “America,” as many as 10 popes may have resigned in the past “but the historical evidence is limited.”
The most recent papal resignation was in 1417, when “Gregory XII resigned to bring about the end of the Western Schism,” he said.
Lombardi stressed that a papal resignation announcement doesn’t have to be accepted by anyone.
According to Lombardi, after his resignation at 8pm Rome time on February 28, Benedict will move to the papal villa of Castel Gandolfo, outside of Rome.
He said Benedict will eventually settle in a former convent inside the Vatican, where renovation works are ongoing.