VATICAN CITY – The Vatican prepared for a momentous transition after Pope Benedict XVI announced he will resign on February 28, starting with a special mass on Wednesday, February 13, and culminating in a final farewell in St Peter’s Square on the eve of his departure.
The rumor mill over a successor was into full swing after what will be only the second voluntary papal resignation in the Catholic Church’s 2,000-year history, although no clear favorite has emerged.
The 85-year-old Benedict told cardinals in a speech in Latin on Monday that he will step down after just eight years because he could no longer fulfil his duties in a fast-changing world.
Benedict will have no influence on the election of his successor — he is too old to be eligible to vote.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Vatican had not yet decided what title the pope will have once he resigns, but said among those being considered was “Bishop Emeritus of Rome”.
The Vatican said the Pope had an operation to replace the batteries in his pacemaker but said the surgery had no bearing on his decision, amid speculation that the resignation was due to health reasons.
The Holy See has emphasized that Benedict’s decision was not due to any specific illness or event and was part of a long thought process.
Lombardi said the Pope’s Ash Wednesday mass, which signals the start of a period of penitence before Easter in the Christian calendar, would exceptionally be held in St Peter’s Basilica instead of a smaller Rome church.
“It is an important concelebration. It will be the Holy Father’s last major concelebration with the public present,” Lombardi said at a press briefing, referring to a type of mass held by the Pope together with senior Church figures.
Series of activities
At a meeting with Rome parish priests on Thursday, February 14, the outgoing Pope is expected to speak about his personal experiences during the reformist Second Vatican Council in the 1960s which changed the face of the Roman Catholic Church.
Then on February 27 there will be a general audience held in St Peter’s Square.
The Pope will retire to a monastery building inside the Vatican — creating an unprecedented situation for the Catholic Church in which the new Pope and his predecessor will live in the same place.
Only a few advisors knew of the Pope’s plan and many in the Vatican hierarchy were caught off guard, with Cardinal Angelo Sodano saying it was “like a lightning bolt in a clear blue sky.”
Within hours, a lightning bolt did strike the tip of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, an eerie image captured by an AFP photographer.
Sodano embraced the pope following his announcement, after which the Pope returned to his rooms in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace and broke down in tears, Italian daily La Stampa reported.
“He could not hold back the emotion any more,” the report said, adding that the Pope had taken his decision after suffering a fall during a trip to Mexico and Cuba last year that was not made public.
Several observers said Benedict wanted to avoid the fate of his predecessor and mentor, John Paul II, who suffered a long and debilitating illness.
Ordinary faithful among the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics were stunned by the decision, particularly as the pope is the first to resign of his own free will in over 700 years.
Some said the move was a courageous act that would breathe new life into a Roman Catholic Church struggling with multiple crises and could possibly set a precedent for ageing popes.
“This signals the end of the tradition of popes for life. It is an example and a suggestion for future popes,” said Marco Politi, a biographer of Benedict and columnist for Il Fatto Quotidiano.
Others expressed dismay that a leader whose election by the Church’s cardinals is believed to be divinely inspired could simply decide to quit.
World leaders said they respected the decision and generally praised his pontificate, particularly for his efforts to promote inter-religious dialogue.
The Pope’s eight-year rule — one of the shortest in the Church’s modern history — also earned him plenty of enemies, however, from the gay community and AIDS activists to the many shocked by the abuses of paedophile priests and multiple cover-ups.
An academic theologian and the author of numerous tomes, including a trilogy on the life of Jesus Christ, the pope was often seen as somewhat distant from the day-to-day running of the Church.
Still he tried hard to reach out to a younger, global audience — including by opening a Twitter account just before Christmas with the handle “Pontifex” (“Pontiff” in Latin).
Only one other pope has resigned because unable to carry on — Celestine V in 1294 — a humble hermit who stepped down after just a few months saying he could no longer bear the intrigue of Rome and was not able to fulfil his duties.
In 1415, Gregory XII was forced out as part of a deal to end the “Western Schism,” when two rival claimants declared themselves pope and threatened to tear apart Roman Catholicism.
Speculation over who could be the next pope is rife, although seasoned observers cautioned that predictions of future popes are notoriously unreliable.
The field appears wide open, with some saying the papacy could return to an Italian for the first time since 1978, others saying it could go to a North American candidate and still others saying Africa or Asia could yield the next pope. (Watch more in Rappler’s video report below.)
Several analysts said the fact that the Pope was resigning precisely because of his advancing age could favour the choice of a relatively young pope.
The Vatican has said it expects a new pope to be in place in time for Easter, which falls on March 31 this year, although the decision is ultimately up to a meeting of the world’s 117 elector cardinals meeting in a secret conclave.
They send a signal of black smoke each day until a decision is taken with a two-thirds majority.
White smoke is then put out from the Vatican palace when a candidate has been approved.
The new pope is then presented to cheering crowds in St Peter’s Square with the famous Latin cry: “Habemus Papam!” (“We have a pope!). – Rappler.com