VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI says he will resign this month because of his advancing age in a fast-changing world, becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to step down of his own free will.
The 85-year-old said Monday he will step down on Feb. 28 after just eight years in office, making his one of the shortest papal reigns in modern history.
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 the 85-year-old 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.
Benedict 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 surprise when he said in Latin that his “strength of mind and body” had diminished and that he couldn’t carry on.
The Vatican newspaper said Benedict decided to resign after his March 2012 trip to Mexico and Cuba, an exhausting but exhilarating trip where he met with fellow octogenarian Fidel Castro.
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 city-state, 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 clerical sex-abuse scandal, communication gaffes that outraged Jews and Muslims alike and 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.
The Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted Benedict’s decision, saying he remains fully lucid and made 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.
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.
Although popes are allowed to resign, only a few have 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.
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,” or possessing the traits of a future pontiff. 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 Jesus Christ.