VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI announced today he would resign on Feb. 28 because he was simply too infirm to carry on — the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.
The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals this 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.
Like the rest of the world, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend learned of the pope's resignation early today. Rhoades said in a statement “The church and the world have been greatly blessed by the extraordinary ministry and beautiful teachings of Pope Benedict. In his providential care, the Lord blessed us with a great shepherd. Amid the sadness of today's news, I am also filled with gratitude for the faithful and fruitful ministry of our beloved Holy Father. I invite all to pray for Pope Benedict, that the Lord will bless him during these days.”
Rhoades said he and late ex-Bishop John D'Arcy met with the pope a year ago this month, “I recall with joy and gratitude that meeting and the warmth and kindness of our Holy Father,” Rhoades said. “I was moved by (his) evident wisdom and holiness.”
Noting that the church enters the penitential season of Lent this week, Rhoades also asked Catholics to pray for the cardinals who will choose Benedict's successor.
The pope's brother, Georg Ratzinger said the pontiff had been advised by his doctor not to take any more transatlantic trips and had been considering stepping down for months.
Talking from his home in Regensburg, Germany, to the news agency dpa, Georg Ratzinger said his brother was having increasing difficulty walking and that his resignation was part of a “natural process.”
“His age is weighing on him,” the 89-year-old said of his 85-year-old brother. “At this age my brother wants more rest.”
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.
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.
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.
Contenders to be his successor include Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican's office for bishops.
Longshots include Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Although Dolan is popular and backs the pope's conservative line, the general thinking is that the Catholic Church doesn't need a pope from a “superpower.”
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.
Popes are allowed to resign; church law specifies only that the resignation be “freely made and properly manifested.”
The News-Sentinel staff contributed to this report.