It hasn't happened since 1415. 77 years before Columbus set sail for the new world. 94 years before Henry VIII established the Episcopal Church, defying papal authority. A pope has decided to abdicate his office rather than be removed. Citing poor health, Pope Benedict XVI announced to the Catholic and religious world that he is stepping down as pontiff effective February 28th. Vatican sources say that a new pontiff could be named before Easter on March 31.
The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals on Monday morning.
He emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope — the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide — requires "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, has 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 stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.
Called "Father NO" by most progressive Catholics, Benedict, who took the papacy in 2005 when John Paul II passed away, took over a church that was and still is rattled with controversy over priests and nuns that were charged and convicted of molesting children in their care.
Pope Benedict often has seemed tired, with large, dark circles under his eyes during especially busy periods of public liturgies and audiences.
In October 2011, Pope Benedict began riding a mobile platform in liturgical processions. At the time, Father Lombardi said it was "solely to lighten the burden" of processions, although he acknowledged the pope had been experiencing the kind of joint pain normal for a man his age. Just a few months later, the pope began using a cane to walk, although it often looks like he is carrying it, not relying on it, for support.
However, just in the past few months when celebrating Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, the pope no longer walks all the way around the altar when using incense at the beginning of Mass; instead he raises the thurible only from the back of the altar. And at the end of a Mass February 2, the pope lost his grip on his crosier; as it fell, Msgr. Guido Marini, the papal master of liturgical ceremonies, caught it.
Benedict called his choice "a decision of great importance for the life of the church."
The move sets the stage for the Vatican to hold a conclave to elect a new pope by mid-March, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed.
When Benedict was elected pope at age 78 — already the oldest pope elected in nearly 300 years — he had been already planning to retire as the Vatican's chief orthodoxy watchdog to spend his final years writing in the "peace and quiet" of his native Bavaria.
Jewish leaders are already reacting to news that Pope Benedict XVI will be resigning from his post.
Israel’s chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, had warm words for the outgoing pope, saying, “During his period [as pope] there were the best relations ever between the church and the chief rabbinate and we hope that this trend will continue.”
“I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
The Jewish community has held a mostly friendly relationship with the Vatican, though there have been some frosty moments during Benedict’s tenure. The German-native was a member of Hitler’s Youth as a child, though he later renounced the affiliation and he notoriously reinstated Richard Williamson, a Holocaust-denying bishop who was previously excommunicated.
The FCJE, Spain’s Jewish body, said it “respected” the pope’s decision to step down.
“As pope, Benedict XVI acted with great intellectual rigor that undoubtedly contributed to Catholic-Jewish relations,” the statement read. “We wish the pope a long life and encourage him to continue working for peace between the peoples after leaving the post.”
Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks echoed those sentiments, telling the Associated Press, "I was honored to welcome Pope Benedict XVI to Britain on behalf of non-Christian faiths in 2010 and spend time with him during a visit to the Vatican in 2011.”
"I saw him to be a man of gentleness, of quiet and of calm, a deeply thoughtful and compassionate individual who carried with him an aura of grace and wisdom. I wish him good health, blessings and best wishes for the future.”
And the World Jewish Congress lauded the Pope’s paste efforts, saying Benedict’s resignation deserves “our greatest respect.”
"The papacy of Benedict XVI elevated Catholic-Jewish relations onto an unprecedented level. Not only did he maintain the achievements of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and give the relationship solid theological underpinning but, more importantly, he filled it with meaning and with life," said WJC President Ronald Lauder.
"From beginning to end, Pope Benedict XVI has shown skillful leadership. He realized that the public Holocaust denial by church leaders must not go unanswered and he spoke out against it. He always had an outstretched hand and an open ear for Jewish leaders."
There are several papal contenders in the wings but no obvious front-runner — the same situation when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
If you're thinking that an American could be the next pontiff, don't hold your breath. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York is a longshot and the thinking is that the next leader of the largest religious denomination does not need to come from a "superpower." Other possible contenders are Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican's office for bishops.
Under Vatican rules, all cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave, the secret meeting held in the Sistine Chapel where cardinals cast ballots to elect a new pope. As per tradition, the ballots are burned after each voting round; black smoke that snakes out of the chimney means no pope has been chosen, while white smoke means a pope has been elected.
Popes are allowed to resign; church law specifies only that the resignation be "freely made and properly manifested."
The pontiff himself raised the possibility of resigning if he were simply too old or sick to continue on in 2010, when he was interviewed for the book "Light of the World."
"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," Benedict said.
42 days before Easter, the Vatican has put out the "Help Wanted" sign. There are some that hope that the next leader will be understanding toward those that use birth control and are homosexual, as well as those that have been screaming for women to have the right to wear the Roman collar. God's Rottweiler, as some call him, is taking a break from the kennel known as the Vatican. Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown, as the old saying goes. The next man up has some really big crimson shoes to fill.
Easter could see a new leader, a new successor to Peter.
Catholics hope that he is just as good, if not better than the current pope.
Tu Es Petrus.