Pope Benedict XVI took the world by surprise yesterday following the sudden announcement of his resignation which takes effect from February 28, 2013. This is the second time in almost 600 years that a Pope would step down on his own volition.
The announcement, which rattled the Catholic world, led to frenzied speculation about who would succeed him. Nigeria's Catholic archbishop, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, and about 197 other Cardinals are expected to decide the Pope's successor. According to the Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, Cardinals will meet to choose Benedict's successor sometime after his official resignation on February 28. He said, "Before Easter, we will have the new Pope".
It takes at least two-thirds plus one of the 120 voting Cardinals to elect a new leader for the church.
Benedict won't be involved in the decision, Lombardi said. But his influence will undoubtedly be felt. Benedict appointed 67 of the 118 Cardinals who will make the decision.
In November last year, Pope Benedict XVI had while responding to criticism that the club of churchmen who will choose his successor was too Eurocentric ,elevated six new Cardinals from Nigeria, Colombia, India, the Philippines, Lebanon and the US.
The College of Cardinals remains heavily European even with the new additions as out of the 120 cardinals under the age of 80 that are eligible to vote to elect a new Pope, more than half are Europeans. "In this consistory, I want to highlight in particular the fact that the church is the church of all peoples, and so she speaks in the various cultures of different continents," Pope Benedict said.
But the Pope yesterday cited old age and diminishing strength as his reasons for his impending resignation. According to a statement from the Vatican, the Pope said, "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."
The Pope's last tweet on his twitter handle @pontifex 24 hours before he announced his resignation reads, "We must trust in the mighty power of God's mercy. We are all sinners but his grace transforms us and makes us new."
Popes who have resigned in the past are Pope Benedict VI who resigned in 1045, Pope Gregory VI in 1046, Pope Celestine V in 1294 and Pope Gregory XII in 1415.
While Pope Benedict XVI cited old age, there is however no requirement for a Pope to resign upon reaching any particular age. The Code of Canon Law No332 (2) provides that "If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone."
Canon Law is the body of laws and regulations made or adopted by ecclesiastical authority (Church leadership) for the government of the Christian organisation and its members. It is the internal ecclesiastical law governing the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict will become the second pope to resign in 600 years since Gregory XII threw in the towel in 1415. In Gregory's case he quit to end a civil war within the church in which more than one man claimed to be Pope.
In this case, it wasn't external forces but the ravages of time that forced Benedict's hand. After months of consideration, he concluded he just wasn't up to the job anymore, Lombardi said.
"It's not a decision he has just improvised," Lombardi said. "It's a decision he has pondered over."
Benedict was said to have been thinking about resigning for some time because of his age. He was also said to have discussed the resignation with his elder brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger.
Several years ago, Benedict had suggested he would be open to resigning should his health fail, but no one expected him to do so this soon, he said.
According to Lombardi, Benedict will step down as pope at 8 pm, February 28, in Rome, then head for the Pope's summer residence. He will probably move to a monastery in the Vatican after that, Lombardi said.
Meanwhile, the Catholic archbishop Onaiyekan has said that the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to resign on February 28 came as no surprise to him. In an exclusive interview with LEADERSHIP, Onaiyekan praised the Pope's courage, noting that the decision was in the best interest of the church. "I wasn't surprised, we saw it coming. What do you expect from and 86-year-old man?"
The archbishop stated that the decision was a personal one, as the Pope was not in any way pressured. He said a new Pope will be elected as soon as possible.
"It is a very courageous decision he took. As bishops, we are expected to retire at the age of 75 but popes have no limit, so it's entirely his decision. He did it in the best interest of the church," Onaiyekan explained.
When asked on the way forward, Onaiyekan said: "There's no problem at all. The church goes on. We shall have another Pope because the church can never be left without a Pope. A conclave of eligible cardinals will be summoned to vote for a new pope."
Onaiyekan confirmed his attendance of the conclave, adding that every cardinal is eligible for the position.
"Every cardinal is eligible for the position. We are not a political party, so it's not a question of what this party or the other ones want. I will be there for the conclave, by God's grace."
Meanwhile, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said it was with a "heavy heart" that he learned of Pope Benedict's decision yesterday to step down as pontiff. According to the spiritual head of the world's Anglicans, it was with a heavy heart but complete understanding that he learned of Pope Benedict's declaration of his decision to lay down the burden of ministry as Bishop of Rome, an office which he has held with great dignity, insight and courage.
Welby said he gave thanks to God for Benedict's life "utterly dedicated, in word and deed, in prayer and in costly service, to following Christ".
Benedict took over as Pope in 2005 as the church was facing a number of issues, including declining popularity in parts of the world and a growing crisis over the church's role in handling molestation accusations against priests around the world.