Pope Benedict XVI made history Monday by announcing his coming resignation—something a pontiff has not done in 600 years.
The 85-year-old pope dropped the bombshell in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, taking even his closest collaborators by surprise. He said he simply lacked the strength to fulfill his duties. Feb. 28 will be his last day.
Benedict had made it clear in the past he would step down if he became too old or ill to do the job.
He called his choice “a decision of great importance for the life of the church.”
Indeed, the move gives the Vatican an opportunity to hold a conclave before Easter to elect a new pope, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope need not be observed.
It also would allow Benedict to influence the choice of his successor. He has already hand-picked the bulk of the College of Cardinals—the princes of the church who will elect the next pope—to guarantee his conservative legacy and ensure an orthodox future for the church.
Several men have been mentioned as papal contenders, but no obvious front-runner has emerged.
The Vatican stressed no specific medical condition prompted Benedict’s decision, but in recent years, the pope has slowed down significantly.
His 89-year-old brother, Georg Ratzinger, said the pope’s age weighed on him: “At this age my brother wants more rest.”
Benedict emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope—the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide—requires "both strength of mind and body."
"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 told the cardinals.
"In order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary—strengths which in the last few months, have deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
Popes are allowed to resign. Church law specifies only that the resignation be "freely made and properly manifested." But only a few have done it.
The last was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.