On February 10, the Catholic pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, convoked a consistory or, in the layman's language, a meeting of the College of Cardinals. He told the cardinals that two main items were on the agenda: three candidates for canonisation, and also "to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the church".
Having set the tone for the meeting, the Holy Father went ahead to notify them of a decision he had earlier taken. He 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. 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.
"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."
The shock with which this papal message was received across the world is in line with the fabled secrecy within and unpredictability of the papacy. Not even his brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, knew it was going to happen. And coming almost 600 years after Pope Gregory XII, the last known pope to resign in 1415, many still feel that the decision ought not to have been made especially as popes are elected for life and are expected to die in office.
However, when he was elected on April 19, 2005, at the age of 78, Benedict XVI had dropped the hint that his pontificate was going to be a short one because, at that time, he was the seventh oldest working pope in history.
Undoubtedly, his was a very difficult but wise decision, imbued with great humility. We salute the courage behind it. Considering the demands of the office, and the standards expected of its occupants, he was realistic and honest enough to himself and the church he leads to know when to take a break. It could also mean that, being a close confidant of the late Pope John Paul II, and knowing what that pontiff went through in his last days, he decided to save himself and the church needless anxiety.
By this decision, the Pope has set an example for leaders, spiritual and temporal. He has demonstrated that, even as the vicar of Christ on earth, he is susceptible to the frailties of human nature. This, in our opinion, should serve as a lesson to office-holders: they don't have to die in office even if the statute books say so.