First Pope to leave office in 600 years
‘He created a milestone in Church history’
Pope Benedict XVI did the unthinkable yesterday and said he will resign on February 28, becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to take such a step.
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Benedict said he no longer had the strength to fulfil the duties of his office.
The statement, which the Pope read out in Latin during a Church council with cardinals convened to decide on the canonisation of three saints, shocked the 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,” the Pope said.
Vatican officials later explained the statement had been translated in different languages before the Pope made his announcement for immediate dissemination.
The decision by the 85-year-old German Pontiff, who was elected to the papacy in April 2005, also surprised the leaders of the Maltese Catholic church.
In a statement at the Archbishop’s residence in Attard, Archbishop Paul Cremona and Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna urged the faithful to pray for the Pope and the Church during this transition period.
Mgr Scicluna, who worked for several years with the Pope when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was evidently touched by the resignation of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Mgr Scicluna said the Pope may have paved the way for this decision two years ago in a lengthy interview with veteran German journalist Peter Seewald, that was reproduced in the book Light Of The World.
Pope Benedict answered a question about papal resignations, giving the same explanation he produced in yesterday’s statement.
Mgr Scicluna also noted that Pope Benedict had twice visited the tomb of Pope Celestine V in Italy, the Pope who resigned in 1294 straight after making it possible for a pontiff to do so.
“In hindsight these may have been signs of what was going through Pope Benedict’s mind,” Mgr Scicluna said.
Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy was beset by a child sex abuse crisis that tarnished the Church. But when asked whether this had any bearing on the Pope’s decision, Mgr Scicluna said the Pontiff was looking at the wider picture.
Until recently the Vatican’s chief prosecutor on child abuse cases, Mgr Scicluna said the harshest words ever pronounced by the Church on these scandals were Pope Benedict’s.
Archbishop Paul Cremona described the Pontiff as a humble man; a Pope who loved Malta.
He recalled the Pope’s visit to the island in 2010, saying the humility of His Holiness shone through.
In one incident, after calling at the Palace in Valletta, Pope Benedict broke protocol and walked over to meet disabled children who were gathered in the front rows before boarding the Popemobile, Mgr Cremona said.
The Pope will be remembered by the Maltese for having canonised Dun Ġorġ Preca, the first Maltese saint. Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy was built on a deep understanding of faith and a dialogue with the world of philosophy, Mgr Scicluna said.
For Gozo Bishop Mario Grech, the resignation was akin to losing “a father”. Having last met the Pope last year during the bishops’ synod in Rome, Mgr Grech said the Pontiff did not seem weak.
“It left me speechless. The Pope was an inspiration even in this decision because he clearly showed that he is not bound to the seat of power. He created a milestone in the Church’s history,” Mgr Grech said.
“The resignation is not a result of the Pope being seriously sick but a realisation of the big mission he has to lead the Catholic Church and the physical weakness that does not allow him to perform at his best,” Mgr Grech added.
In his statement, the Pope said that to govern, strength of mind and body were necessary.
“Strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me, to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil 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.”
A Vatican spokesman said the Pontiff will step down from 8pm on February 28, leaving the office vacant until a successor is chosen. A conclave of cardinals, expected to be held in March, will elect a new Pope.
Given that the Pope’s resignation is somewhat of an unknown quantity for the Church, arrangements are under way to provide Benedict XVI with a place of residence. A disused monastery on Vatican grounds has been identified for this purpose.
The following is the text of the speech that Pope Benedict delivered in Latin to members of a church council, announcing his planned resignation:
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonisations, 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 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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil 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 St Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on April 19, 2005, in such a way, that as from February 28, 2013, at 8pm, the See of Rome, the See of St 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.”