Pope Benedict XVI to Resign: What Happens Now?

In a decision unprecedented in modern times, Pope Benedict XVI said Monday that he would resign effective Feb. 28, six weeks shy of his 86th birthday. He told cardinals at the Vatican that he lacks the strength to continue his duties.

“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 (ship as a symbol of the Church) 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,” he said. (Read his full declaration on the Vatican’s website.)

The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415 to end the schism in the western Roman Church brought about when two men claimed to be pope.

“The pope took us by surprise,” Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters on Monday. He said Pope Benedict read the short statement in Latin to cardinals who had gathered to decide on a day to canonize several new saints.

It’s important for a pope to be able to travel for ministry purposes, said Archbishop of Washington Donald Wuerl at a press conference, adding that while the resignation stunned some, Pope Benedict himself had said he wouldn’t be in place long. “He said by the very nature of his age, this was not going to be a long pontificate,” Wuerl noted.

It was almost eight years ago — on April 19, 2005 — that the College of Cardinals elected the German cardinal, named Joseph Ratzinger, to replace Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger’s selection as pope was a quick one — it took the secret conclave of 115 cardinals only a day.

The way the next pope is selected will be different this time. In 1996, Pope John Paul II changed the cardinals’ vote to a simple majority to try to avoid lengthy delays, but Pope Benedict reverted back to the traditional two-thirds majority in 2007.

White smoke emanating from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney, from the burning of the conclave’s secret ballots, still signals the cardinals have chosen a new pope.

Pope Benedict also has named most of the cardinals who will pick his successor. As of December, he had appointed 67 of the 119 cardinal electors, according to the Rev. Thomas J. Reese is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

Who might the next pope be? Reuters’ religion editor Tom Heneghan says some are hinting that the next pope could be from Latin America. “I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal Church,” said Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who now holds the pope’s old post as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reported Heneghan.

Will the next pope bring about any changes, reporters asked Wuerl. The doctrine that is the bedrock for the Catholic faith will continue, he said. “The challenge is living with that and applying it to the basic circumstances of our day.”

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