SAN FRANCISCO (CBS / AP) — Declaring that he lacks the strength to do his job, Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday he will resign Feb. 28 – becoming the first pontiff to step down in 600 years. His decision sets the stage for a mid-March conclave to elect a new leader for a Roman Catholic Church in deep turmoil.
The 85-year-old pope called his choice “a decision of great importance for the life of the church.” He dropped the bombshell in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprising some even though he had made clear previously that he would step down if he became too old or infirm to carry on.
“Those of us who know him and who have watched his whole life unfold in service to God, can see that that this decision to step down was motivated by his own discernment of what best serves the good of the Church,” San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said in a statement e-mailed to CBS San Francisco. “I will pray for him with great filial affection, and ask that we all hold him in prayer at this time. May God bless him and may God guide the College of Cardinals as they choose his successor.”
The Vatican will hold a conclave before Easter to elect a new pope, and Benedict will hold great sway over the choice of his successor — though he will not himself vote. He has already hand-picked the bulk of the College of Cardinals – the princes of the church who will elect the next pope – to guarantee his conservative legacy and ensure an orthodox future for the church.
Among those participating in the selection process will be Cardinal William Levada, the former Archbishop of San Francisco. The 75-year-old Levada was the highest-ranking American in the Vatican — a top adviser to Pope Benedict XVI as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, until he resigned resigned last summer.
There are several papal contenders in the wings (Levada is not one of them, observers noted), but no obvious front-runner – the same situation when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
The Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted Benedict’s decision, that he remained fully lucid and took his decision independently.
It has been obvious to all that the pope has slowed down significantly in recent years, 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. Occasionally he uses a cane.