The 265th pope of the Roman Catholic Church — Benedict XVI (Papa Benedictus Sextus Decimus) — announced his resignation, or retirement, Feb. 11, to take effect by the end of the month for health reasons. The 85-year-old Benedict is the first pope since Pope Gregory XII in 1415 to resign.
A press release from the Vatican website reads:
“Dear Brothers, 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. 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. However, 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 Saint 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. 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, 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 Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
“Dear Brothers, 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. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.”
Before the big news, the pope tweeted (@Pontifex) on Sunday: “We must trust in the mighty power of God’s mercy. We are all sinners, but His grace transforms us and makes us new.”
The announcement was met with surprise, if not shock, by many observers across the world, especially by the more than one billion Roman Catholics, led by Benedict. Even cardinals in the Vatican had no idea it was coming, according to reports.
An expert on Roman Catholicism, Chester Gillis, dean of Georgetown College and a theology professor at Georgetown University, talked Feb. 11 to “CBS This Morning,” co-hosted by Charlie Rose and Norah O’Donnell. Gillis called the pope’s resignation “unthinkable,” adding that if the pope felt he could not continue because of health issues his stepping-aside was “generous” and “a humble act.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, held a press conference this morning on the resignation and what to expect in the weeks ahead. “What has to be uppermost in the hearts and minds of all of us is ‘What is God asking of us in making a choice for who will fill the chair of Peter?’ ” said Wuerl, according to the Washington Post. “And I think that’s going to be the only consideration: who among this body has the qualifications, the characteristics, the spiritual gifts to fill that chair.”
Already speculation has begun on Benedict’s successor. Media outlets and bookies, such as PaddyPower.com, are looking at Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, Cardinanl Luis Tagle of the Phillipines, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and others.
President Barack Obama praised the pope: “I have appreciated our work together over these last four years. The Church plays a critical role in the United States and the world, and I wish the best to those who will soon gather to choose His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s successor.” French President François Hollande called the pope’s decision “brave and exceptional.” Also via Twitter, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said he was shocked by the decision and expressed “deep respect” for the pontiff.
Pope Benedict visited Washington, D.C., in April 2008. Greeted by President George W. Bush, the pope was presented with a birthday cake in the White House. The pope was serenaded by students from Annunciation Church on Massachusetts Avenue, who sang “Happy Birthday” to him in English and German in front on the Vatican Embassy, where he enjoyed a lunch catered by Cafe Milano. Like his predecessors, he visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception next to Catholic University. One of the biggest events of his trip was a mass at the new Nationals Park .
Born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in Bavaria, the pope attended the seminary as a teenager but was forced to be part of the Hitler Youth and then German infantry briefly at the end of World War II. His family’s home was used by U.S. troops as a headquarters. He returned to the seminary with his brother — and went on to become a professor and the Archbishop of Munich. Becoming a cardinal and then as the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he succeeded the extraordinarily popular, beloved and long-reigning Pope John Paul II in 2005. Benedict has dealt with the sexual abuse scandals within the church and its children — not always to the satisfaction of many, if not the hatred of some. He has been seen as an intellectual, explaining the correctness of tradition and of Christian theology and culture.
Upon his ascension to the seat of Saint Peter, Benedict said, “Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me — a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
We shall see and hear more in the days ahead, but a German proverb from Psalms — “An Gottes Segen Ist Alles Gelegen” — should inform our understanding. Once seen in many households in Saxony and Bavaria, these words mean: “With God’s blessing, everything is possible” — or, more literally, “On God’s will is everything placed.”