The announcement is a shocker. The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, nearly 600 years ago, and he stepped down only to settle a wrangle with the antipopes of Avignon. (He wasn’t the Gregorian calendar pope, by the way — that was Gregory XIII.)
Pope Benedict XVI was 78 when he took office in 2005, and it was assumed that he would hold the papacy for life. His predecessor and mentor, Pope John Paul II, died in office after a long physical decline. One wonders if that had any impact on Benedict XVI’s decision today.
Benedict XVI’s statement read, in part:
“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 steer the boat 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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill 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, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.”