This is a first.
Nothing like this has happened before in the modern history of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI stunned the faithful on Monday when he announced that he's planning to step down from his post as infallible spiritual leader at the end of the month, citing he no longer has the strength to fulfill the demands of the position.
The announcement came just a couple days before Ash Wednesday, the start of the reflective Lenten season.
“Strength of mind and body are necessary, 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, 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 Saint Peter,” the pope said, according to a statement from the Vatican.
Benedict called a meeting of cardinals to make the announcement of “a decision of great importance for the life of the church.”
"The pope took a sheet of paper and read from it. He just said that he was resigning and that he would be finishing on February 28," said Mexican prelate Monsignor Oscar Sanchez, who was present for the announcement.
In the statement, Benedict said, “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.”
The cardinals who were present for the reading were shocked and taken aback.
“The cardinals were just looking at one another. Then the pope got to his feet, gave his benediction and left. It was so simple; the simplest thing imaginable. Extraordinary. Nobody expected it. Then we all left in silence. There was absolute silence … and sadness,” said Sanchez.
Apparently, the decision was not made abruptly. Benedict had been contemplating making this decision.
“It's not a decision he has just improvised," Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesperson, said at a news conference. "It's a decision he has pondered over.”
Benedict is expected to honor his public commitments and engagements until the date of his resignation. After he resigns, he will most likely retire to monastic life while cardinals will meet to elect a new leader for the church. The goal is to have a newly ordained pope in time for Easter.
“Before Easter, we will have the new pope,” said Lombardi.
The abdication of Benedict will initiate the centuries-old process of electing a new pope. Cardinals from around the world will return to Rome to assemble the College of Cardinals, a behind closed doors meeting in the Sistine Chapel where they will vote under conditions of absolute secrecy.
During the 15 day traveling period and voting process, the responsibility of running the Church falls on the cardinals. The cardinal who is the camerlango, or chamberlain will oversee the election process. The cardinals will quietly discuss the merits of each of the candidates. The cardinals have to come to an agreement on who will serve as the next Pope. The cardinals do not necessarily have to elect a fellow cardinal, in fact, any baptized Catholic male can be elected as Pope, but traditionally speaking, the role falls to another cardinal.
The Vatican explains that the cardinals should be led by the Holy Spirit in the decision-making process; however, the election is often a highly political process. Alliances are forged during the two week voting process and senior cardinals who are not up for consideration still have sizeable influence.
The ballots are burned after each vote. Black smoke billows from the Sistine Chapel after each failed vote. A new pope is elected when someone receives a two-thirds vote plus one, at which point, white smoke emerges from the Sistine Chapel to announce that a new pope has been elected. Smoke is used to inform the public of the proceedings because of the intense secrecy of the papal succession ritual.
Cardinal Peter of Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana is considered a front-runner to succeed Benedict. If Cardinal Turkson is chosen, it would be historic, rivaling President Obama's election as the first black President of the United States. Turkson would become the first black Pope of the Catholic Church (click here to see the other front-runners for the next pope).
In 2005, Benedict became the 265th and sixth German pope after the death of Pope John Paul II, but since taking on the role he has suffered from arthritis in his knees, hips, and ankles. He is known for his conservative values and has led the church as it experienced decline in its followership in the developed world, but growth in the developing world, including Latin America and Africa. His papacy has been plagued by accusations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
A voluntary papal resignation is rare – certainly in recent centuries. Pope Celestine V last exercised his right to step down from the papacy in 1294.
Although popes come and go, the tradition of the papacy is one of the world’s most lasting traditions, providing spiritual guidance and comfort to Catholics throughout the world.
To read the full text of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, click here.