VATICAN CITY — "Let’s just say there was a fair amount of surprise," said a senior Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the shock of Pope Benedict XVI announcing his intent to resign.
Like the rest of the world, the official, who works in the heart of the apostolic palace, never saw the announcement coming last year.
"Just a handful of people knew," he said. "The person who told me the news didn’t even believe it."
It was a Vatican holiday that day, and officials required to work expected a light workload, but that’s not how it turned out. "It was crazy — I was taking phone calls nonstop for the next three days," the official recalled.
Benedict XVI made the nearly unprecedented announcement at 11:41am local time on Feb. 11, 2013, in the consistory hall of the apostolic palace. Speaking in Latin, he told the small gathering of cardinals who were present to hear the announcement of three new saints that he would resign the Petrine ministry on Feb. 28 due to declining health.
"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," Benedict declared. "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 added that, "in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith," both strength of mind and body are necessary to proclaim the Gospel, "strength 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."
"For this reason," he continued, "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 St. Peter, entrusted to me by the cardinals on April 19, 2005, in such a way, that, as from Feb. 28, 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of St. Peter will be vacant, and a conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is."
‘Act of Love for the Lord’
Not since Pope St. Celestine V in 1294 had a reigning pope chosen on his own initiative to resign the papacy rather than die in office.
"It was an act of great courage, even a revolutionary act, which opened up possibilities that no one at that moment could see," said Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict XVI’s personal secretary, in an interview with Vatican television released Feb. 11, 2014. The resignation was a "very special day," he continued, adding that Benedict had told him about his decision shortly before the announcement, but gave him strict orders not to tell anyone.
But even though Archbishop Gänswein had advance knowledge, he was still "shocked." The German archbishop believes it was "an act of love for the Lord, for the Church and for the faithful, to step aside, to open up the possibility to a person who has more strength, who can continue his work."
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio on Feb. 10 that Pope Benedict’s decision was "a great act of government," made with "great spiritual depth."
For most people, it was an "unusual and surprising gesture," he said, but for those closest to him, it was a decision he had "prayed about, reflected and evaluated with spiritual discernment." Father Lombardi pointed to the fact that Benedict had hinted at the possibility in Light of the World, his 2010 book-length conversation with the German journalist Peter Seewald.
The reasons Benedict gave for his decision were also "absolutely adequate and clear," Father Lombardi added, despite speculation that he resigned for ulterior reasons, possibly connected to the Vatileaks scandal or the sexual-abuse crisis.
It is now widely known that Pope Emeritus Benedict first took the possibility of resigning seriously when he suffered a small fall during the night on his papal visit to Mexico in March 2012. He was further convinced when doctors advised him to no longer go on lengthy trips, ruling out World Youth Day in Rio last July.
Father Lombardi said the decision to resign required "great courage," because taking such an unusual decision can lead to "problems or doubts about ‘what’ it would mean" and unknown "consequences for the future, as regards the people of God or the general public."
"The clarity and, I would say, faith with which Benedict XVI prepared this gesture gave him the serenity and strength required to implement it," Father Lombardi said, "proceeding with courage and serenity, with a true vision of faith and of waiting for the Lord, who continually accompanies his Church."
The Vatican spokesman said it was quite clear to Benedict that there was "absolutely no need to fear. Why? Because the fact is: The papacy is a service and not a power. If power is what motivates, then it is clear that two people may find it difficult to coexist in the same role, because it could be difficult to renounce power and live with one’s successor."
"But if service is what motivates," Father Lombardi continued, "then a person who has done his duty before God and in full consciousness of this service passes on the testimony to another person with that attitude of service and full freedom of conscience."
If this happens, "there is absolutely no problem," the papal spokesman said. "There is a deep spiritual solidarity among the servants of God who seek the good of the people of God in the service of the Lord."
Reaction to Pope Francis
Archbishop Gänswein said he "strongly" believes that Benedict’s gesture had a great impact on the faithful’s emotional reaction to Pope Francis, saying that it "is an aspect that should not be underestimated."
Francis’ impact on the world was also "facilitated" by Pope Benedict in his resignation. "He opened up a possibility that, until then, was not there, and we see that Pope Francis has taken up this situation, and we are pleased that today it is so," he said.
Reflecting on the life of Benedict XVI today, Father Lombardi said he "lives discreetly, without a public dimension, but this does not mean that he is isolated, closed, as if in a strict cloister."
His activities "are normal for an older person," he said. As well as reading, praying, studying and answering correspondence, the Vatican spokesman said Benedict also meets people "who are close to him, whom he willingly meets, with whom he believes it is useful to have a dialogue, who ask for advice or spiritual closeness."
He is, therefore, a person "who is spiritually rich" and living in a "discreet relationship with others." Gone is the public dimension, he said, but in its place is "a normal life of relationships."
One of those, of course, is with Pope Francis. Both are regularly in contact with each other. It’s a "completely normal relationship," he said, "and, I would add, one of solidarity."
"I believe those rare images of the two popes together and praying together — the current Pope and the pope emeritus — is a truly beautiful and encouraging sign, the continuity of the Petrine ministry in the service of the Church," he concluded.
To mark the anniversary, Pope Francis sent out a tweet, calling on the faithful to "join me in prayer for His Holiness Benedict XVI, a man of great courage and humility."