Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he will resign the papacy at 8:00 P.M. (Rome time) on February 28, 2013. While not unprecedented, a papal resignation is very rare; Pope Benedict will be the first pope to resign in 600 years.
Rumors that the Holy Father would resign his office had been common in the early years of his pontificate; elected on April 19, 2005, after the death of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict was the oldest man named to the papacy in almost 300 years. But such rumors had abated in the last year, and today's announcement has shaken the Catholic world. Germany's Der Spiegel, however, is reporting that the Pope's brother, Fr. Georg Ratzinger, has known for months of Benedict's plans.
While the short period between the announcement and the date of the resignation is likely to prompt speculation regarding the reasons for the resignation, the BBC reports that "The Pope says his strength is no longer adequate to continue in office." Pope Benedict will turn 86 on April 16, 2013.
The Holy Father made his announcement in Latin; Vatican Radio has released an English translation of the entire text. Speaking to the College of Cardinals at a consistory in Vatican City today, the Holy Father declared:
Dear Brothers, 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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil 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.
Vatican Radio has also provided an audio file of Pope Benedict's announcement in Latin.
While this may not have had any influence on his decision to resign, Pope Benedict XVI will now have almost unprecedented influence over the choice of his successor. While it is not yet known when the College of Cardinals will meet to elect a new pope, a Vatican spokesman has announced that Pope Benedict's successor should be chosen (and presumably installed) by the end of March. Easter falls on March 31, 2013, and there is obviously great pressure to have the Holy Father's successor in place by then.
Greg Burke, a former FOX News reporter hired as a media advisor by the Vatican, has confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that "This means we'll have a new pope by Easter," because the College of Cardinals will be able to meet immediately following Pope Benedict's resignation, rather than observing the customary nine-day mourning period after a pontiff's death.
Elected as the successor of Pope John Paul II, the second-longest serving pope in history, Benedict XVI was from the beginning viewed as a "transitional" pope. At 78 years old, he was largely expected to mark time until his death, when a younger man would be elected.
Benedict's pontificate, however, has been remarkably active, especially on ecumenical questions. He has repeatedly reached out to the Eastern Orthodox; set up a structure for Anglicans to return to Rome; begun the process of reconciling the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X; extended the use of the Traditional Latin Mass, to (among other things) preclude further traditionalist schisms; and approved the issuing of a very important document that makes the Catholic Church's understanding of ecclesiology, which must be the basis for any ecumenical dialogue, crystal-clear.
Pope Benedict has also dealt with extensive media criticism over the clerical sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had done more to end the scourge of clerical sexual abuse than any other high-ranking Catholic clergyman; but publications such as the New York Times, which disagreed with the Holy Father over his doctrinal and moral positions, continually tried to pin the failings of other Catholic bishops on Pope Benedict. The constant battle to improve the Church's handling of clerical sexual-abuse cases while being portrayed as doing the opposite clearly took its toll on Pope Benedict's health, hastening the day of his resignation.
(A gust of wind lifts Pope Benedict XVI's cape as he leaves St. Mark's Square on board an electric car on May 8, 2011, in Venice, Italy. Photo by Marco Secchi/Getty Images)