In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI delivers his message during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, at the Vatican, Monday. Benedict XVI announced that he would resign Feb. 28, 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. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Monday, February 11, 2013 4:53 PM
VATICAN CITY (AP) — With a few words in Latin, Pope Benedict VXI did Monday what no pope has done in more than half a millennium, announcing his resignation and sending the already troubled Catholic Church scrambling to replace the leader of its 1 billion followers by Easter.
Not even his closest associates had advance word of the news, a bombshell that he dropped during a routine morning meeting of Vatican cardinals. And with no clear favorites to succeed him, another surprise likely awaits when the cardinals elect Benedict's successor next month.
"Without doubt this is a historic moment," said Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a protege and former theology student of Benedict's who is considered a papal contender. "Right now, 1.2 billion Catholics the world over are holding their breath."
The move allows for a fast-track conclave to elect a new pope, since the traditional nine days of mourning that would follow a pope's death doesn't have to be observed. It also gives Benedict great sway over the choice of his successor. Though he will not himself vote, he has hand-picked the bulk of the College of Cardinals — the princes of the church who will elect his successor — to guarantee his conservative legacy and ensure an orthodox future for the church.
The resignation may mean that age will become less of a factor when electing a new pope, since candidates may no longer feel compelled to stay for life.
"For the century to come I think that none of Benedict's successors will feel morally obliged to remain until their death," said Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois.
Benedict had said as recently as 2010 that a pontiff should resign if he got too old or infirm to do the job, but it was a tremendous surprise when he said in Latin that his "strength of mind and body" had diminished and that he couldn't carry on. He said he would resign effective 8 p.m. local time on Feb. 28.
"All the cardinals remained shocked and were looking at each other," said Monsignor Oscar Sanchez of Mexico, who was in the room at the time of the announcement.
As a top aide, Benedict watched from up close as Pope John Paul II suffered publicly from the Parkinson's disease that enfeebled him in the final years of his papacy. Clearly Benedict wanted to avoid the same fate as his advancing age took its toll, though the Vatican insisted the announcement was not prompted by any specific malady.
The Vatican said Benedict would live in a congregation for cloistered nuns inside the Vatican, although he will be free to go in and out. Much of this is unchartered territory. The Vatican's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said he isn't even sure of Benedict's title — perhaps "pope emeritus."
Since becoming pope in 2005, Benedict has charted a very conservative course for the church, trying to reawaken Christianity in Europe where it had fallen by the wayside and return the church to its traditional roots, which he felt had been betrayed by a botched interpretation of the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
His efforts though, were overshadowed by a worldwide clerical sex abuse scandal, communication gaffes that outraged Jews and Muslims alike and, more recently, a scandal over leaked documents by his own butler. Many of his stated priorities as pope also fell short: he failed to establish relations with China, heal the schism and reunite with the Orthodox Church, or reconcile with a group of breakaway, traditionalist Catholics.
There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner — the same situation as when Benedict was elected after the death of John Paul. As in recent elections, some push is expected for the election of a Third World pope, with several names emerging from Asia, Africa and Latin America, home to half the world's Catholics.
The Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted Benedict's decision, saying he remains fully lucid and took his decision independently.
"Any interference or intervention is alien to his style," Lombardi said.
The pope has clearly slowed down significantly in recent years, cutting back his foreign travel and limiting his audiences. He now goes to and from the altar in St. Peter's Basilica on a moving platform to spare him the long walk down the aisle. Occasionally he uses a cane.
As early as 2010, Benedict began to look worn out: He had lost weight and didn't seem fully engaged when visiting bishops briefed him on their dioceses. But as tired as he often seemed, he would also bounce back, enduring searing heat in Benin to caress a child and gamely hanging on when a freak storm forced him to cut short a speech during a youth festival in Madrid in 2011.
His 89-year-old brother, Georg Ratzinger, said doctors recently advised the pope not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips.
"His age is weighing on him," Ratzinger told the dpa news agency in Germany. "At this age, my brother wants more rest."
Benedict emphasized that to carry out the duties of being pope, "both strength of mind and body are necessary — strengths which in the last few months, have deteriorated in me."
"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 the demands of being the pope, he told the cardinals.
In a way, it shouldn't have come as a surprise. Benedict himself in 2010 raised the possibility of resigning if he were too old or sick to continue.
"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 in the book "Light of the World."
But he stressed that resignation was not an option to escape a particular burden, such as the sex abuse scandal.
"When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the situation," he said.
Although popes are allowed to resign, only a handful has done it — and none for a very long time.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, a dispute among competing papal claimants. The most famous resignation was Pope Celestine V in 1294; Dante placed him in hell for it.
There are good reasons why others haven't followed suit, primarily because of the fear of a schism with two living popes. Lombardi sought to rule out such a scenario, saying church law makes clear that a resigning pope no longer has the right to govern the church.
When Benedict was elected in 2005 at age 78, he was the oldest pope chosen in nearly 300 years. At the time, he had already been 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.
On Monday, Benedict said he plans to serve the church for the remainder of his days "through a life dedicated to prayer." The Vatican said after he resigns he will travel to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat south of Rome, and then live in the monastery.
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.
There are currently 118 cardinals under age 80 and thus eligible to vote, 67 of whom were appointed by Benedict. However, four of them will turn 80 before the end of March. Depending on the date of the conclave, they may or may not be allowed to vote.
Benedict in 2007 passed a decree requiring a two-thirds majority to elect a pope, changing the rules established by John Paul in which the voting could shift to a simple majority after about 12 days of inconclusive balloting. Benedict did so to prevent cardinals from merely holding out until the 12 days had passed to push through a candidate who had only a slim majority.
Contenders to be his successor include Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan; 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, being from a world superpower would probably hurt his chances. That might also rule out Cardinal Raymond Burke, an arch-conservative and the Vatican's top judge, even though he is known and respected by most Vatican cardinals.
Monsignor Antonio Marto, the bishop of Fatima in central Portugal, said Benedict XVI's resignation presents an opportunity to pick a church leader from a country outside Europe.
"In Africa or Latin America, there is a freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith," Marto told reporters. "Perhaps we need a pope who can look beyond Europe and bring to the entire church a certain vitality that is seen on other continents."
Cardinal Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, has impressed many Vatican watchers, but at 56 and having only been named a cardinal last year, he is considered too young.
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana is one of the highest-ranking African cardinals at the Vatican, currently heading the Vatican's office for justice and peace, but he's something of a wild card.
There are several "papabiles" in Latin America, though the most well-known — Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras — is considered far too liberal to be elected by such a conservative College of Cardinals.
Whoever it is, he will face a church in turmoil: The sex abuse scandal has driven away thousands of people, particularly in Europe, from the church. Rival churches, particularly evangelical Pentecostal groups in the developing world, pose new competition. And as the pope himself has long lamented, many people in an increasingly secular world simply believe they don't need God.
The timing of Benedict's announcement was significant: Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday, the most solemn period on the church's calendar that culminates with Holy Week and Easter on March 31. It is also the period in which the world witnessed the final days of John Paul's papacy in 2005.
The timing means that there will be a spotlight cast on Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Italian head of the Vatican's culture office who has long been on the list of "papabile." Benedict selected him to preside over the Vatican's spiritual exercises during Lent.
And by Easter Sunday, the Catholic Church will almost certainly have a new leader, Lombardi said — a potent symbol of rebirth in the church on a day that celebrates the resurrection of Christ.
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Daniela Petroff contributed from Vatican City, Thomas Adamson from Paris and Philipp-Moritz Jenne in Vienna.
Pope Benedict XVI's resignation sets in motion a complex sequence of events to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The laws governing the selection after a pope's resignation are the same as those in force after a papal death, aside from skipping a period of mourning.
Here is the procedure:
• The Vatican summons a conclave of cardinals that must begin 15-20 days after Benedict's Feb. 28 resignation.
• Cardinals eligible to vote — those under age 80 — are sequestered within Vatican City and take an oath of secrecy.
• There are currently 118 cardinals under age 80 and eligible to vote, 67 of whom were appointed by Benedict. However, four of them will turn 80 before the end of March. Depending on the date of the conclave, they may or may not be allowed to vote.
• Any baptized Roman Catholic male is eligible for election as pope, but only cardinals have been selected since 1378.
• Two ballots are held each morning and two each afternoon in the Sistine Chapel. A two-thirds majority is required. Benedict in 2007 reverted back to this two-thirds majority rule, reversing a 1996 decision by Pope John Paul II, who had decreed that a simple majority could be invoked after about 12 days of inconclusive voting. Benedict did so to prevent cardinals from holding out for 12 days then pushing through a candidate who only had only a slim majority.
• Ballots are burned after each round. Black smoke means no decision; white smoke signals that cardinals have chosen pope and he has accepted. Bells also signal the election of a pope to help avoid possible confusion over color of smoke coming from chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
• The new pope is introduced from the loggia overlooking St. Peter's Square with the words "Habemus Papam!" (Latin for "We have a pope!") and he then imparts his first blessing.
Benedict XVI says he is stepping down at the end of the month, lacking the strength to fulfill his duties at the head of the Catholic Church. The 85-year-old German becomes the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years. Here are some key events in the life of a conservative pontiff who grappled with a global sex abuse scandal that exploded during his leadership:
• April 16, 1927: Born Joseph Alois Ratzinger in Marktl am Inn, Germany, youngest of three children to Joseph and Maria Ratzinger.
• 1943-1945: Assistant in Germany's anti-aircraft defense and infantry soldier; imprisoned in 1945 in American POW camp in Neu-Ulm.
• June 29, 1951: Ordained along with brother Georg Ratzinger in Freising.
• 1969-1977: Professor at University of Regensburg.
• March 25, 1977: Named archbishop of Munich and Freising.
• June 27, 1977: Made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.
• Nov. 25, 1981: Named prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope John Paul II; takes up post in March 1982.
• April 2, 2005: Pope John Paul II dies.
• April 8, 2005: As dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger presides over John Paul's funeral.
• April 19, 2005: Elected 265th pope in one of the fastest conclaves in history. Choosing name Benedict XVI, he says he is merely a "simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord."
• April 24, 2005: Installed as pope with Mass.
• Aug. 18-21, 2005: First foreign trip, to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany.
• Sept. 24, 2005: Meets with dissident theologian Hans Kung at papal summer residence.
• Dec. 25, 2005: First encyclical "God is Love" signed. Released Jan. 25, 2006.
• May 28, 2006: During trip to Poland, visits Auschwitz concentration camp.
• Sept. 12, 2006: During visit to Germany, delivers speech at University of Regensburg that enrages Muslims; quoting a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
• April 16, 2007: First volume of "Jesus of Nazareth" completed on his 80th birthday. Released April 13.
• May 27, 2007: Signs letter to China's Catholics, urging them to unite under his authority. Published June 30.
• July 7, 2007: Removes restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass in major gesture to traditional Catholics.
• April 20, 2008: During visit to United States, prays for victims of Sept. 11, 2001 attacks at ground zero.
• July 19, 2008: During visit to Australia for World Youth Day, meets with victims of priestly sex abuse and during a Mass apologizes for their suffering.
• Jan. 21, 2009: Lifts excommunication of Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson and three other ultra-traditionalist bishops of Society of St. Pius X, igniting outrage. Decree released Jan. 24.
• March 10, 2009: Acknowledges Vatican mistakes in Williamson affair, says Vatican must make better use of Internet to prevent future controversies. Letter released March 12.
• March 17, 2009: En route to Cameroon, tells reporters aboard papal plane that condoms are not the solution to AIDS and can make problem worse, prompting widespread criticism.
• May 11, 2009: During visit to the Holy Land, lays wreath at Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, says Holocaust victims "lost their lives but they will never lose their names."
• June 29, 2009: Third encyclical "Charity in Truth" signed. Released July 7, 2009.
• July 17, 2009: Breaks right wrist in late-night fall at summer vacation home.
• Oct. 20, 2009: Vatican announces pope is making it easier for Anglicans to convert en masse to Catholicism.
• March 19, 2010: Rebukes Irish bishops for "grave errors of judgment" in handling clerical sex abuse but makes no mention of Vatican responsibility in letter to Irish faithful. Released March 20.
• May 1, 2010: Orders major overhaul of Legion of Christ after Vatican investigation determines founder was a fraud.
• Sept. 16-19, 2010: During first state visit by a pope to Britain, meets with Queen Elizabeth II, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and beatifies Anglican convert John Henry Newman.
• Nov. 20, 2010: Revises controversial condom-AIDS comments in book and says male prostitutes who use condoms may be taking a first step toward a more responsible sexuality.
• March 2, 2011: Issues sweeping exoneration of Jews for the death of Christ in "Jesus of Nazareth-Part II." Book released March 10.
• May 1, 2011: Beatifies John Paul II before 1.5 million people.
• June 28, 2011: Tweets for the first time, announcing launch of Vatican news information portal.
• Oct. 6, 2012: Pope's former butler is convicted on charges he stole the pontiff's private letters and leaked them to a journalist.
• Feb. 11, 2013: Reveals in Latin that he is stepping down Feb. 28 during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprising even his closest collaborators.