Feb 12 2013
With a few words in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI did what no pope has done in more than half a millennium, stunning the world by announcing his resignation and leaving the already troubled Catholic Church to replace the leader of its one billion followers by Easter.
Not even his closest associates had advance word of the news, a bombshell that he dropped during a routine meeting of Vatican cardinals on Monday. And with no clear favourites 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 February 28 resignation 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 does not have to be observed.
It also gives 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 tremendous surprise when he said in Latin that his "strength of mind and body" had diminished and that he could not carry on.
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.
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 was not 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. 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.