The announcement of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI came as a shock around the world. Saying he no longer had the strength to exercise ministry over the universal church, Pope Benedict XVI announced on Feb. 11 that he would be resigning at the end of the month. “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 pope told cardinals gathered for an ordinary public consistory to approve the canonization of new saints.
Pope Benedict, who was elected in April 2005, will be the first pope to resign in almost 600 years.
He told the cardinals, “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 bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both 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.”
The pope has had increasingly trouble walking in the past year, often using a cane and always being assisted getting up and down steps. The Vatican has never released medical information, however, that would make it appear the pope suffers from anything other than joint pain connected to his age.
In a statement released on Feb. 11, New York Cardinal and President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Timothy Dolan said, “The Holy Father brought the tender heart of a pastor, the incisive mind of a scholar and the confidence of a soul united with His God in all he did. His resignation is but another sign of his great care for the Church. We are sad that he will be resigning but grateful for his eight years of selfless leadership as successor of St. Peter.
“Though 78 when he elected pope in 2005, he set out to meet his people – and they were of all faiths – all over the world,” Cardinal Dolan said. “He visited the religiously threatened – Jews, Muslims and Christians in the war-torn Middle East, the desperately poor in Africa, and the world’s youth gathered to meet him in Australia, Germany, Spain and Brazil.”
Cardinal Keith O'Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland, said he was "shocked and saddened" by the news. "I know that his decision will have been considered most carefully and that it has come after much prayer and reflection," Cardinal O'Brien said. He offered prayers from the Scottish church for Pope Benedict "at this time of deterioration in his health as he recognizes his incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to him."
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, president of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said the pope's announcement "has shocked and surprised everyone."
"Yet, on reflection, I am sure that many will recognize it to be a decision of great courage and characteristic clarity of mind and action," Archbishop Nichols said.
The option of a pope to resign is explicitly written into the Code of Canon Law. It says a pope may step down, but stipulates that the decision must be made freely and “duly manifested.”
Fulfilling the canonical requirement, Pope Benedict solemnly declared to the cardinals, “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 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 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.”
It is up to the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, to make preparations for a conclave to elect a new pope.
Before ending his remarks, Pope Benedict told the cardinals, “I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the holy church to the care of our supreme pastor, our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the cardinal fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new supreme pontiff.”
The pope made no mention of his future plans, other than to say, “I wish to also devotedly serve the holy church of of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.”