Vatican sources say there will be a new Pope by Easter, which falls this year on March 31.
In an announcement that apparently came as a surprise even to his closest aides, Pope Benedict XVI announced on Monday that he would step down at 8pm Vatican time on February 28. That makes him the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years.
Vatican sources said that as the Pope has not died there is obviously no need for the traditional nine days of mourning, but there will be a Conclave to select a new pope.
The 85-year-old said he took the decision due to old age. In a statement delivered to the Vatican he said: “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.”
“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.”
No specific illness
The Vatican’s spokesman said Pope Benedict has no specific illness and his decision to resign was taken with no outside pressure.
Father Federico Lombardi explained that the Pope’s decision was not due to an illness but to a progressive decline in his strength which was normal in a man of his age.
“In the last few months he has seen a decline in vigour, both of the body and spirit,” Lombardi told reporters. “It was his personal decision taken with full freedom, which deserves maximum respect,” he added.
Lombardi said the Pope had not decided to resign because of “difficulties in the papacy” and the move had been a surprise, indicating that even his inner circle was unaware that he was about to quit.
The Pope does not fear schism in the Church after his resignation, the spokesman said.
Elected on April 19 2005 at the age of 78, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was one of the oldest men to take on the position in the history of the Catholic church.
He has had to oversee some of the most turbulent times for the Catholic Church in recent years, as a scandal was breaking about child sex abuse by priests.
He has also been at the centre of the so called “Vatileaks” scandal over the leaking of his private papers by his personal butler.
Pope Benedict has proved to be a divisive figure. While conservatives cheered him for getting back to traditional Catholic values, his critics accused him of turning back the clock on reforms by nearly half a century and damaging dialogue with Muslims, Jews and other Christians.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she fully respected German-born Pope Benedict’s decision to resign because of his frailty.
“If the Pope himself, after thorough reflection, has come to the conclusion that he doesn’t have the strength anymore to carry out his duties, then this has my utmost respect,” Merkel said in a brief statement at the Chancellery in Berlin. “He had to make a difficult decision.”
‘A heavy heart’
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual head of the global 80-million-strong Anglican Communion, said: “It was with a heavy heart but complete understanding that we learned this morning of Pope Benedict’s declaration of his decision to lay down the burden of ministry as Bishop of Rome, an office which he has held with great dignity, insight and courage.”
Welby said he gave thanks to God for Benedict’s life “utterly dedicated, in word and deed, in prayer and in costly service, to following Christ.”
To hear the Pope’s statement – in Latin – click on the link below