Update (March 1): Pope Bendedict XVI officially stepped down from his position as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics yesterday. He is the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, but World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Theological Commission chairman Thomas Schirrmacher, a Protestant expert on the Catholic Church, says he has not been surprised by the events.
"Pope Benedict had made it unmistakably clear...that when a pope is physically or mentally no longer in a position to lead the Church, he has the right, "indeed under certain circumstances the duty," to step down," Schirrmacher said in a WEA interview. "Presumably it will not be the last resignation due to reasons of age but should rather become the rule."
Pope Benedict XVI will resign his position as leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church at the end of February. The 85-year-old pontiff, elected in 2005, cited his "advanced age" and the "rapid changes" of today's world.
"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," said Benedict (full statement at bottom). "However, in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith ... [strength] has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
Benedict has previously expressed support for the idea of a pope voluntarily resigning– the New York Timesreports that while still German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he said if an ill Pope John Paul II "sees that he absolutely cannot do it anymore, then certainly he will resign"–but his announcement was unexpected. "The pope took us by surprise," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
RNS reports that a new pope may be selected by Easter, and has reactions from New York Cardinal TImothy Dolan and new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. RNS also has a helpful Q&A regarding how the next pope will be selected.
Despite his age, Benedict made many attempts to engage the "rapid changes" of the modern world, including launching his own Twitter account in December after sending his first tweet in June 2011.
CT has regularly reported on Pope Benedict XVI, including why German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen for an "impossible job" and how he was a "blessing" to evangelicals with lots of promise. CT also noted his encyclical on why you can't just love your neighbor, and his pointing fingers at who killed Jesus.
CT has also regularly reported on Benedict's predecessor Pope John Paul II, as well as the papacy and Catholicism in general.
Full text of Pope Benedict's announcement (distributed by the Vatican):
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. 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 bark 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."
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