The head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, announced his resignation to the College of Cardinals yesterday triggering a rash of predictions on who will succeed him.
The pope, in a message read to the cardinals at a meeting in the Vatican, cited old age as the reason why he is relinquishing the post he had held since April 2005. He will be 85 in April.
His resignation notice shocked the world, especially the Catholics, as he gave no inkling about it to any of his associates or aides.
He is the first pope to have resigned in the last 600 years, coming after Pope Gregory XII who resigned in 1415 to help end a split within the church.
As soon as the news of the pope's resignation filtered in, British bookmaker William Hill and other analysts tipped Nigeria's Francis Cardinal Arinze, 80, as favourite with odds of 2/1. A successor is expected to be elected before Easter.
A Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, was quoted by The Guardian of London as saying that Benedict's aides were "incredulous" when he told them he would step down because he was too weak to fulfil his duties. He summoned a meeting of cardinals to tell them of "a decision of great importance for the life of the church".
The pope, in a statement, said: "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.
"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."
Among cardinals being touted as Benedict's successor are Arinze, Marc Cardinal Ouellet, a French-Canadian who has also been linked with the papacy in the past, especially since being appointed the head of the Congregation of Bishops and Ghana's Peter Cardinal Turkson.
"When we opened betting last time around, in 2005, Francis Arinze was our favourite," Hill said.
According to him, when Ratzinger (Benedict) became pope, Arinze took over from him as cardinal bishop of Valletri-Segni, a Catholic diocese close to Rome, and it could be that he'll follow in his footsteps again.
One of those called to hear the announcement, the Mexican prelate Monsignor Oscar Sanchez, said none of the cardinals had expected it.
"The pope took a sheet of paper and read from it. He just said that he was resigning and that he would be finishing on February 28.
"The cardinals were just looking at one another. Then the pope got to his feet, gave his benediction and left. It was so simple; the simplest thing imaginable. Extraordinary. Nobody expected it. Then we all left in silence. There was absolute silence ... and sadness," he said.
The pope's successor is expected to be elected by the end of March and possibly for the beginning of holy week on March 24.
Benedict will honour public commitments and engagements until the date of his resignation, after which he will move to a summer residence near Rome and then to a former monastery within Vatican territory.
He will take no part in the process to elect a successor. Cardinals will meet and vote on nominees in a series of ballots until a new pope is chosen.
Benedict, who became the 265th pope in 2005, has arthritis, particularly in his knees, hips and ankles. He had been due to travel to Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, in July for a youth festival, but concerns had been raised among Vatican observers about whether he was well enough.
Reacting to Benedict's resignation, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, allayed fears that the decision would lead to a crisis in the Catholic Church.
He urged all Catholic faithful in Nigeria and in other countries to pray for the pope and the church.