Pier Paolo Cito, File, Associated Press
Pope Benedict XVI's suprising announcement that he will resign is being lauded by Roman Catholic leaders, scholars and laity as courageous, selfless and in the best interest of a church that represents half of the world's Christians.
The 85-year-old pope announced Monday he would resign Feb. 28, telling a meeting of Vatican cardinals that he no longer has the physical strength for the demands of the job.
"I think it is significant that instead of clinging to power, he voluntarily relinquishes it in the service of the church that he has guided so well," said Bishop John C. Wester, who heads the diocese of Salt Lake City.
In becoming the first pontiff to resign in 600 years, Pope Benedict sent a message that demands on church leaders are increasing and that his successor will face formidable challenges pastoring more than 1 billion Catholics in what he has repeatedly called an increasingly secular world that threatens the faith's stands on family and social justice.
"I think it was an extremely courageous thing to do. It now offers an example for future popes that when the burden of the office become too great they will have the model of Benedict to follow in resigning," said Larry Cunningham, a retired professor of theology at Notre Dame University.
The pope's announcement sets in motion planning for a conclave of cardinals that will convene sometime in March to elect a new pope, possibly before Easter, since the church will not have to observe the traditional periods of mourning and funeral that take place when a pope dies.
When Benedict was elected in 2005 at age 78, he was the oldest pope chosen in nearly 300 years and was already planning to retire as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the Vatican's chief orthodoxy watchdog.
He was also a top adviser to Pope John Paul II and witnessed how the declining health of the pontiff hindered his ability to lead. Benedict himself, as recently as 2010, reportedly raised the possibility of resigning if he were too old or sick to continue.
Reports on the announcement concurred that the pope has noticeably slowed down in recent years, cutting back his foreign travel and limiting his audiences. A moving platform spares him the long walk down the aisle to the altar in St. Peter's Basilica.
Still, the announcement made in Latin at the end of his remarks at a routine meeting of cardinals took many by surprise.
"All the cardinals remained shocked and were looking at each other," said Monsignor Oscar Sanchez of Mexico, who was in the room at the time of the announcement, according to the Associated Press.
Benedict emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope requires "both strength of mind and body."
"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 the demands of being the pope, he told the cardinals.
"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 govern the bark (ship) of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary — strengths which in the last few months have deteriorated in me."
Cunningham noted that the pope made clear he was making this decision consciously, freely and explicitly — the conditions under which a pope can resign.
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