Published: February 11, 2013
VATICAN CITY — The decision, delivered in Latin and in unemotional tones by Pope Benedict XVI to a gathering of cardinals on Monday, came “like a bolt out of the blue,” one of the participants said, and it soon ricocheted around the world.
During what was supposed to be a routine meeting to discuss the canonization of three potential saints, Benedict read a statement that said, in part, that after examining his 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 leading the world’s one billion Roman Catholics. He was resigning on Feb. 28, he said, becoming the first pope to do so in six centuries.
“In today’s world,” Benedict said in his announcement, “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.”
Within minutes, #Pontifexit was trending on Twitter. Later, during an evening thunderstorm, a lightning bolt struck the dome of St. Peter’s, though the meaning, if any, was not immediately clear.
In recent months, Benedict, 85, had been showing signs of age. He often seemed tired and even appeared to doze off during Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, after being taken to the altar of Saint Peter’s on a wheeled platform. But few expected the pope to resign so suddenly, even though he had said in the past that he would consider the option.
“The pope took us by surprise,” said the Vaticanspokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, expounding on one of the most dramatic moments in centuries of Vatican history. He appeared at a hastily called news conference on Monday, where he sat alone at a table, with an unopened bottle of mineral water and a dog-eared copy of a Canon Law guide before him.
Father Lombardi said the pope did not display strong emotions as he made his announcement, but spoke with “great dignity, great concentration and great understanding of the significance of the moment.”
In a statement, President Obama recalled meeting with Benedict in 2009. “I have appreciated our work together over these last four years,” the president said. “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.”
Prime Minister Mario Monti of Italy called Benedict’s decision “immense and unexpected.”
More than a few observers were struck that such a traditionalist as Benedict would make such an unconventional exit. “A departure that is paradoxically modern for a pope who was so conservative,” said Christian Terras, the founder and executive editor of Golias, a religious review near Lyon, France, that has been critical of the Catholic Church.
Some said that Benedict’s decision to step down was one of the most dramatic acts in the history of the papacy. “This decision has been the only great reform of Benedict, and at the same time it is a revolutionary step for the Catholic Church,” said Marco Politi, a Vatican expert and author of a book on Benedict’s papacy. While in past centuries, popes had stepped down over political struggles, Mr. Politi said, “this is a clear decision and a free decision made by the pope that will set an example also for the future, setting a limit for the pontificate.”
Benedict’s 89-year-old brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, said that the pope’s weakening health had led him to step down. “His age was taking its toll,” Father Ratzinger told the German news agency dpa on Monday, adding that he had been aware of his brother’s plan for several months.