Pope's bombshell sends troubled church scrambling

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


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


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


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


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.


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


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.


Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield


Daniela Petroff contributed from Vatican City, Thomas Adamson from Paris and Philipp-Moritz Jenne in Vienna.

Electing a pope: conclave, oath, chimney smoke

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.


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.

Key events in the life of Benedict XVI

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


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


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.