In a surprise announcement Monday, Pope Benedict XVI declared his decision to resign effective February 28. He cited as reasons his advancing age and failing health.
A conclave of cardinals will immediately begin work on selecting a successor to the 85-year-old pontiff. The Vatican expects to elect a new pope before the end of March, or just before Easter.
The unexpected announcement, which the Pope delivered in Latin, was made during a meeting of Vatican cardinals. It took even the Pontiff’s closest aides by surprise. In a ‘brilliant piece of news management,’ the BBC reported this morning that he appeared to have made the decision entirely on his own.
“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,” the Pope told 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.”
Pope Benedict XVI is the first Pope to step down in nearly 600 years. The last Pontiff to do so was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 as part of a deal to end the Papal Schism within the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict was elected pope on April 19, 2005. At the advanced age of 78, he was the oldest pope to be elected in nearly 300 years. He was also the first German pope since Victor 11, who was elected in the 11th century.
The Pope is leader to the world’s approximately 1.2 billion Catholics to whom he is believed to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. Popes are elected by a conclave of cardinals and usually hold the office for life.
In his relatively short tenure the Pope was known for some significant actions in office.
The pope’s Pastoral Letter of March 2010 exposed the child sexual abuse scandal in Ireland that involved crimes against over 13,000 children. In a direct address to the victims of abuse and their families, the pope wrote,
“You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry.”
Subsequent efforts to follow up were less successful and drew criticism of the Pontiff for his lack of initiative on the issue.
In May 2011 the Vatican issued a papal order instructing priests in traditionalist congregations to return to the old style Latin Tridentine Mass. The order followed up an earlier Papal Decree in 2007 re-instating the Latin Mass.
In a Christmas speech given in 2013, the Pope expressed his opposition to gay marriage, saying it was an “attack” on the traditional family. His stance ignited a worldwide controversy. Although his position drew strong support in Africa, it was condemned in the West resulting in a decline in church goers as well as a reduction in number of applicants applying to the priesthood.
Pope Benedict XVI was born on April 16, 1927 in the German state of Bavaria.