VATICAN CITY — During the course of his nearly eight-year pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has sometimes been labeled the "Pope of Surprises" on account of his academic brilliance and unpredictability, but few seriously imagined this.
News of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation — which was declared formally in a written statement dated Feb. 10 — filtered through the Italian news agency ANSA at around 10:30am Rome time Feb. 11 and was initially met with widespread disbelief, even by those closest to him.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi confirmed a couple of hours later during a packed and somber press conference that the Pope would indeed be leaving his ministry as Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter at precisely 8pm on Feb. 28. Benedict announced his decision to a Feb. 11 consistory of cardinals who were gathered to rule on three canonizations.
Father Lombardi said his closest aides were left "incredulous," but added that the Holy Father showed "great courage" and "determination."
It’s thought that only his very close inner circle — notably his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and the prefect of the Pontifical Household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein — knew of the Pope’s decision to resign before the public announcement. Father Lombardi said it was an "absolutely personal" decision.
Such a resignation is unprecedented in modern times, with the last papal resignation being Pope Gregory XII in 1415. But it is in line with Canon 332 No. 2 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that, if a pope is to resign, "it is required for validity that he make the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone."
In his statement, the Pope said that, "after having repeatedly examined" his conscience before God, he had come to the "certainty" that his strengths, "due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry."
He added: "I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering."
But he said 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." He noted that these had "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."
Two days after saying he will resign, Pope Benedict said that he has been able to feel the prayers and love that have been poured out for him.
"I have felt, almost physically, your prayers in these days which are not easy for me, the strength which the love of the Church and your prayers brings to me," he said at the beginning of his weekly general audience on Feb. 13.
"Continue to pray for me and for the future pope; the Lord will guide us!" he told the thousands of pilgrims.
The outpouring of support for Pope Benedict was evident from the moment he stepped onto the stage in Paul VI Hall. He was met with sustained applause when he began his remarks and had to pause until it subsided.
"Thank you for your kindness," he responded as he resumed.
"I decided to resign from the ministry that the Lord had entrusted me on April 19, 2005. I did this in full freedom," the Pope stressed, adding that he made the decision "for the good of the Church, after having prayed at length and examined my conscience before God, well aware of the gravity of this act."
The Pope reiterated his official statement of resignation by saying that he was "also well aware that I was no longer able to fulfill the Petrine ministry with that strength that it demands."
"What sustains and illuminates me is the certainty that the Church belongs to Christ, whose care and guidance will never be lacking.
"I thank you all for the love and prayer with which you have accompanied me."
No Medical Diagnosis
Father Lombardi said he knew of no particular medical complaint, only that he had noticed increasing frailty; although, on Feb. 12, he disclosed that the Pope had a new pacemaker fitted three months ago. He also denied there was any conscious attempt to make the announcement on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is also the Church’s World Day of the Sick.
The news prompted speculation about the reasons for his unexpected decision. However, those close to the Pope argue that his decision is very much in keeping with his character. Reluctant to be Pope — he once remarked that, on learning of his election, he felt like a guillotine had come down on his neck — he went on to courageously embrace it. But it was no secret that, as cardinal, he harbored dreams of retiring and spending time back in his native Bavaria writing books.
Moreover, as a man known for his humility and well aware of his strengths and weaknesses, he made it clear that he would consider resigning if the time were right. In his 2010 interview for the book Light of the World, Pope Benedict was asked if he would resign in view of the sexual-abuse scandal.
"When the danger is great, one must not run away," he said. "For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view."
But he added, "One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it."
Asked if he could imagine a situation in which he would consider a resignation by the pope appropriate, he said he could and that "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."
That time appears to have come.
Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, the Pope’s older brother, told reporters Feb. 11 that the Holy Father had been advised by his doctor not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips and had been considering stepping down for months. He added that he had been having difficulty walking and that his resignation was part of a "natural process."
"His age is weighing on him," he said. "At this age, my brother wants more rest."
But a further sign that the Pope might resign was also apparent back in 2009. Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican was one of the few to draw attention to the significance of Benedict XVI visiting the resting place of Pope Celestine V. A holy pope chosen to reform the Church, Celestine pleaded with cardinals not to choose him, and he struggled to rule the powerful cardinals around him. He resigned from the papacy in December 1294, five months after his election.
Elected at a time of great corruption and contention in the Church, after a long conclave, he assumed the See of Peter at the age of 80; Benedict XVI was 78 when elected in 2005.
Some observers, therefore, see it as unsurprising that Benedict XVI had an affinity with Celestine, and, during his 2009 visit, he made a significant gesture by leaving his own pallium — a sign of his episcopal authority and his connection to Christ — on the medieval pope’s tomb.
During his pontificate, Benedict has venerated the relics of Celestine twice — but although such gestures did not go unnoticed at the time, few believed Benedict XVI would himself resign.
But the Holy Father’s retirement is likely to be less fraught than that of Celestine, who was held under house arrest by Pope Boniface VIII, as his successor feared his opponents might use Celestine as a rallying point. Boniface also annulled all of Celestine’s official acts.
Father Lombardi said Pope Benedict plans to retire to a former cloistered monastery within the Vatican, but immediately after Feb. 28 he will be based at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. This is to allow renovations to the monastery to be completed, after which the former Pope will continue his theological studies.
The Vatican spokesman, speaking on Feb. 12, said the Pope’s expected encyclical on faith will not be published before the Pope steps down. He added that he did not know how close the document was to completion, but, when published, it will take a form other than an encyclical.
Tributes Pour In
Tributes to the Pope have been pouring in from around the world, beginning in the Curia.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, who will play a key role in overseeing the coming conclave, expressed his closeness and that of all the cardinals to Benedict XVI.
"We have heard you with a sense of loss and almost disbelief," he said in a statement. "In your words we see the great affection that you have always had for God’s holy Church, for this Church that you have loved so much."
He recalled how the Holy Father "did not hesitate" to assume the responsibilities of being pope when elected in 2005. "Although moved with emotion, to answer that, you accepted, trusting in the Lord’s grace and the maternal intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church. Like Mary on that day, she gave her Yes, and your luminous pontificate began, following in the wake of continuity, in that continuity with your 265 predecessors in the Chair of Peter, over 2,000 years of history from the apostle Peter, the humble Galilean fisherman, to the great popes of the last century, from St. Pius X to Blessed John Paul II."
"We will still have many occasions to hear your paternal voice," Cardinal Sodano continued. "Your mission, however, will continue. You have said that you will always be near us with your witness and your prayer. Of course, the stars always continue to shine, and so will the star of your pontificate always shine among us. We are near to you, Holy Father, and we ask you to bless us."
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement, saying the Pope "brought a tender heart of a pastor, the incisive mind of a scholar and the confidence of a soul united with God in all he did." Acknowledging sadness at the news, Cardinal Dolan said his resignation is "another sign of his great care for the Church."
"Our experience impels us to thank God for the gift of Pope Benedict," Cardinal Dolan said.
Tributes were forthcoming from outside the Catholic Church as well. Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, the recently elected leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, said it was with "a heavy heart but complete understanding" that Anglicans had learned of the Pope’s decision.
"As I prepare to take up office, I speak not only for myself and my predecessors as archbishop, but for Anglicans around the world, in giving thanks to God for a priestly life utterly dedicated, in word and deed, in prayer and in costly service, to following Christ," Archbishop Welby said in a message posted on his website. "He has laid before us something of the meaning of the Petrine ministry of building up the people of God to full maturity."
President Barack Obama also released an official statement in response to the Pope’s announcement, remembering his 2009 visit with the Pope and acknowledging the role of the Church in the U.S. and world.
Reaction among Romans was largely one of shock — drivers calling over passersby near the Vatican to check it was true, while others wondered if there were more reasons behind the resignation and that maybe he had been pushed out. Almost fittingly, a thunderstorm broke soon after the announcement, and torrential rain poured down on Rome for the rest of the day.
The Coming Conclave
Attention has already started turning towards the coming conclave, although proceedings won’t begin until March.
Father Lombardi said no one knows the exact date of the papal election, but noted that, obviously, there will be no need to wait the normal period of novendali (mourning) after the death of a pope.
"Thus, in two weeks, during the month of March, in time for Easter, we will have a new pope," the papal spokesman said. "Benedict XVI will have no role in next March’s conclave or in the running of the Church during the time between popes, the time of sede vacante (empty chair)," he added. "The Apostolic Constitution gives no role in this transition to a pope who resigns."
As of Feb. 12, it’s also not clear what title Benedict XVI will have once he steps down.
Many speculate that among the leading candidates to succeed Pope Benedict XVI are Cardinals Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan; Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa; Peter Turkson, a Ghanaian and president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Robert Sarah, a Guinean and president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum; and Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
From the United States, Cardinals Timothy Dolan, Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, and Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Houston-Galveston have been mentioned; however, in Church history, it is considered less likely (though not impossible) for a candidate from a world superpower to be elected pope.
Whoever is elected will find himself confronting a unique set of circumstances and have to deal with the challenge of a previous, legitimately elected pope who is still living.
Edward Pentin wrtites from Rome.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.