ROME (CNN) — The spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI, surprised the world Monday by saying he will resign at the end of the month “because of advanced age.”
It’s the first time a pope has resigned in nearly 600 years.
“Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength 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 pope said, according to the Vatican.
After Benedict’s resignation becomes effective on February 28, cardinals will meet to choose a new leader for the church.
“Before Easter, we will have the new pope,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said at a news conference.
The decision was not impulsive, he said.
“It’s not a decision he has just improvised,” Lombardi said. “It’s a decision he has pondered over.”
After his resignation, Benedict, 85, will probably retire to a monastery and devote himself to a life of reflection and prayer, he said. He will not be involved in choosing a new pope or in guiding the church after his resignation, Lombardi said.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said the decision “shocked and surprised everyone.”
“Yet, on reflection, I am sure that many will recognise it to be a decision of great courage and characteristic clarity of mind and action,” he said.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, said he was sad to see Benedict resign.
“The Holy Father brought the tender heart of a pastor, the incisive mind of a scholar and the confidence of a soul united with His God in all he did,” he said. “His resignation is but another sign of his great care for the Church.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Benedict “will be missed as a spiritual leader to millions. Cameron’s Irish counterpart, Enda Kenny, praised Benedict for decades of leadership and service, as well as his decision to resign.
“It reflects his profound sense of duty to the Church, and also his deep appreciation of the unique pressures of spiritual leadership in the modern world,” Kenny said.
Benedict led the church as it saw declines in his native Europe but expansions in the developing world, including Africa and Latin America.
He also was known for his conservative views on theology and church doctrine. Dolan said he “warned of a dictatorship of relativism.”
But his papcy, which began in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II, also was marked with controversy over the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
In 2010, The New York Times reported that church officials, including Ratzinger, had failed to act in the case of a Wisconsin priest accused of molesting up to 200 boys. The Times reported that church officials stopped proceedings against the priest after he wrote Ratzinger, who was at the time the cardinal in charge of the group that oversees Catholic Church doctrine.
Ratzinger never answered the letter, according to the Times, and church officials have said he had no knowledge of the situation. But a lawyer who obtained internal church paperwork said at the time that it “shows a direct line from the victims through the bishops and directly to the man who is now pope.”
Also in 2010, the Times reported that the future pope — while serving as the archbishop in Munich — had been copied on a memo informing him that a priest accused of molesting children was being returned to pastoral work. At the time, a spokesman for the archdiocese said Ratzinger received hundreds of memos a year and it was highly unlikely that he had read it.
That same year, Benedict issued new rules aimed at stopping abuse. The rules included allowing church prosecution of suspected molesters for 20 years after the incidents occurred, up from 10 years previously. The rules also made it a church crime to download child pornography and allowed the pope to remove a priest without a formal Vatican trial.
Abusive priests had “disfigured their ministry” and brought “profound shame and regret” on the church, he said at the time.
Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Monday that the church should choose a new pope dedicated to preventing sexual abuse by priests.
“For the Church to truly embody the spiritual teachings of Jesus Christ, it must be led by a pontiff who demands transparency, exposes child-molesting clerics, punishes wrongdoers and enablers, cooperates with law enforcement, and makes true amends to those who were hurt so greatly by Catholic priests, employees and volunteers,” Blaine said.
Victims’ groups are pressing the International Criminal Court to prosecute Benedict in the sex abuse scandal, and say the resignation won’t change that, according to Pam Spees, of the public policy law firm Center for Constitutional Rights, which is helping SNAP pursue the case.
Benedict was born Joseph Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in Marktl Am Inn, Bavaria, a heavily Catholic region of Germany.
He spent his adolescent years in Traunstein, near the Austrian border, during the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler.
Ratzinger wrote in his memoirs that school officials enrolled him in the Hitler Youth movement against his will when in 1941, when he was 14.
He said he was allowed to leave the organization because he was studying for the priesthood, but was drafted into the army in 1943. He served with an anti-aircraft unit until he deserted in the waning days of WW II.
After the war, he resumed his theological studies and was ordained in 1951. He received his doctorate in theology two years later and taught dogma and theology at German universities for several years.
In 1962, he served as a consultant during the pivotal Vatican II council to Cardinal Frings, a reformer who was the archbishop of Cologne, Germany.
As a young priest, Ratzinger was on the progressive side of theological debates, but began to shift right after the student revolutions of 1968, CNN Vatican analyst John Allen Jr. said.
In his book “Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith,” Allen says Ratzinger is a shy and gentle person whose former students spoke of him as a well-prepared and caring professor.
Pope Paul VI named him archbishop of Munich in 1977 and promoted him to cardinal the next month. Ratzinger served as archbishop of Munich until 1981, when he was nominated by John Paul II to be the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position he held until his election as pope.
He became dean of the College of Cardinals in November 2002 and in that role called the cardinals to Rome for the conclave that elected him the 265th pope.
In his initial appearance as pope, he told the crowd in St. Peter’s Square that he would serve as “a simple and humble worker in the vineyards of the Lord.”
He is the sixth German to serve as pope and the first since the 11th century.
The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415. He did so to end a civil war within the church in which more than one man claimed to be pope.
The following is the full text of Benedict’s declaration:
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. 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. 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, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength 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. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.
From the Vatican, 10 February 2013
BENEDICTUS PP XVI
We explore what the surprise announcement means for the Catholic Church.Why has Pope Benedict XVI resigned?
In his statement, Pope Benedict — who turns 86 in April — said he had come to the certainty “that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Pope Benedict had the right and potentially the duty to resign.
But he stressed that the pope’s decision was not because of any external pressure.
When will he step down?
The pope said that he would step down at 8:00 p.m. on February 28, Rome time.
When will the next pope be elected?
A meeting of the College of Cardinals to elect the next pope will be held. The gathering is known as a “conclave.”
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said there would be elections some time in March and he anticipated that there would be a new pope before Easter.
Is it normal for popes to resign?
It is the first time a pope has resigned in nearly 600 years.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415. He stepped down to end the “Great Western Schism” — during which there were rival claims to the papal throne.
According to the National Catholic Weekly, modern popes have felt that resignation is unacceptable and could encourage factions within the church to pressure pontiffs to step down.
Canon law states that a resignation must be made freely and properly manifested and that the pope resigning must be of sound mind.
What is the election process?
By law, the conclave begins in the Sistine Chapel. On that morning, the cardinals will celebrate the Votive Mass, “Pro Eligendo Papa.” That afternoon, the cardinals begin the election process.
The cardinals draw lots to select three members to collect ballots from the infirm, three “tellers” to count the votes and three others to review the results.
Blank ballots are then prepared and distributed. The ballots are rectangular in shape and must bear in the upper half, in print if possible, the words “Eligo in Summum Pontificem,” meaning “I elect as supreme pontiff.” The electors write the name of the candidate on the lower half and fold it in two.
After writing the name of one man on his ballot, each of the active cardinals — those under 80 years of age — walks to an altar in order of seniority and pledges to perform his duty with integrity. Each cardinal then places a folded ballot containing his choice onto a small disc made of precious metal and drop it inside a chalice.
After all votes are cast, the tellers tally the ballots and the result is read to the cardinals. If a cardinal receives two-thirds plus one of the votes, he is the new pontiff.
If there is no winner, another vote is taken. If there is still no winner, two more votes are scheduled for the afternoon.
How is the result of the vote broadcast?
After the votes are counted each time, the ballots are burned. If there has been no winner, a chemical is mixed with the ballots to produce black smoke when they are burned.
Sight of the black smoke emerging from the roof of the Vatican Palace tells those waiting in St. Peter’s Square that a pope has not yet been selected.
When a winner has been selected, the ballots are burned alone, and the white smoke indicates there is a new pope.
What will Pope Benedict do after his resignation?
Lombardi said it was expected that Pope Benedict would devote his time to reflection and prayer.
In his statement, Pope Benedict said he wished “to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.”
The Vatican said Pope Benedict would eventually move to a monastery within the Vatican.
What will Pope Benedict be known as once he has stepped down as Pope?
According to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Pope Benedict will return to being known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once he has stepped down as pope. He will be addressed as his eminence or Cardinal Ratzinger.