The Catholic church was thrown into turmoil today after Pope Benedict XVI made the shock decision to quit the papacy because of his deteriorating health.
In a decision that has surprised even his closest aides, the 85-year-old Pontiff said his strength was ‘no longer adequate to continue in office due to his advanced age’.
He announced his resignation in Latin to a meeting of Vatican cardinals this morning, saying he did not have the ‘strength of mind and body’ to continue leading more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide.
The decision is unprecedented. He is the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415 and no Pontiff in history has stepped down on health grounds.
There are several papal contenders, including Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson who is a front-runner to become the first black Pope.
Although officials said there had been no pressure for Benedict to resign, the internet is already awash with speculation that there was a more sinister reason behind his decision.
Speaking in one of the Vatican’s state rooms, the Pope today told cardinals: ‘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 by 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 St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary – strengths 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.’
Benedict, who at 78 became the oldest Pope in 300 years when he was elected in 2005, said he was making the decision in ‘full freedom’ but was ‘fully aware of the gravity of this gesture’.
Several cardinals did not even understand what Benedict had said during the consistory, said the Reverend Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
Others who did were stunned.
A cardinal who was at the meeting said: ‘We listened with a sense of incredulity as His Holiness told us of his decision to step down from the church that he so loves.’
In a hastily arranged and, at times, shambolic press conference this morning, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said: ‘It’s taken us a bit by surprise. We’ve had to organise ourselves very quickly.
‘We’ve had no warning of what the Pope was about to announce. The declaration is crystal clear and we need to go through it word by word.
‘The Pope says that he looked in a personal way and had a deep moment of reflection to consider the mission that he had received from God.’
A Vatican spokesman said he will officially stand down at 8pm Rome time (7pm GMT) on February 28.
The Pontiff, who was known as ‘God’s rottweiler’ because of his stern stand on theological issues, will then retire to the Pope’s summer residence near Rome before returning to the Vatican to spend the rest of his life in cloistered accommodation.
As he begins his retirement, cardinals in Rome will begin the process of choosing a successor.
Although the Pope’s announcement this morning came as a huge shock to his colleagues, there have been rumours about his health over the last few years.
The Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted Benedict’s decision, but in recent years, the Pope has slowed down significantly, cutting back his foreign travel and limiting his audiences.
He now goes to and from the altar in St Peter’s Basilica on a moving platform, to spare him the long walk down the aisle.
Benedict has acknowledged having suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in 1991 that temporarily affected his vision, but he later made a full recovery.
In 2009, the Pope fell and suffered minor injuries when he broke one of his wrists while vacationing in the Alps.
A doctor familiar with the pope’s medical team said the Pontiff has no grave or life-threatening illnesses.