Catholics hail pope's resignation as courageous, humble
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, a dispute among competing papal claimants. Three other popes have resigned in the history of the church. Pope Benedict IX stepped down in 1045 to get married; a year later Pope Greogy VI was forced to resign for bribing his way to the papacy; and in 1294 Pope Celestine V stepped down after declaring he had the right to resign and go back to his former life of solitude.
The reasons no other pope has resigned since 1415 vary. According to the Rev. Monsignor Robert Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University, health reasons weren't a concern until John Paul II's suffering from Parkinson's disease hampered his ability to lead during his last years.
Others have pointed out the possibility of a schism if there were two living popes. But a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said such a scenario couldn't happen because a resigning pope no longer has the right to govern the church.
The Vatican said that immediately after his resignation, which will take effect at 8 p.m. Feb. 28, the retired pontiff will go to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat south of Rome, and live in a cloistered monastery.
Pope Benedict said he would serve the church for the remainder of his days "through a life dedicated to prayer."
Conclave of cardinals
While he will not take place in election of his successor, the pontiff has already had an indirect influence on who will be candidates for the papacy. In his eight years as head of the church, Pope Benedict has reportedly hand-picked 67 of the 118 members of the College of Cardinals who are eligible to elect his next successor.
Wister said the cardinals will gather in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel soon after the pontiff retires to cast ballots until a candidate receives a two-thirds majority, a procedural change made by Pope Benedict in 2007 to prevent cardinals from pushing through a candidate who had only a slim majority.
As per tradition, the ballots are burned after each voting round; black smoke that snakes out of the chimney means no pope has been chosen, while white smoke means a pope has been elected.
Wister said the pope is the Bishop of Rome and carries the authority of the ancient Apostle Peter. Technically any male within the layity or clergy of the church is a candidate for pope, but the pontiff has traditionally come from the church's cardinals who are appointed by the pope.
The speculation on Monday was that a candidate from the high growth regions of Latin America or Africa could be elected. "This may be the time to break out of Europe," Wister said, noting that the elections of Pope Benedict, a German, and his predecessor from Poland broke with the centuries-old tradition of an Italian pope.
Wister and Cunningham confidently predicted the new pope would not be from the United States because of the dominant secular power and influence the country has in the world.
The pontiff's resignation and election of a successor will take place during a richly symbolic time for Catholics, who begin their 40 days of Lent on Ash Wednesday — a solemn period of reflection that culminates with Holy Week and then Easter, on March 31, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ and a new beginning.
"This historic decision comes fittingly as the church prepares to enter the season of Lent, where marked with ashes, we are reminded of our human limits and utter dependence on the grace and providence of the Lord of history," Brian Birch, president of CatholicVote.org, said in a statement.
Defender of the faith
The shy and academic Pope Benedict XVI was elected pontiff following in the footsteps of the popular and outgoing John Paul II, who served for 26 years.
Under his predecessor, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was responsible for articulating and enforcing official church teaching on highly contested issues, including homosexuality and women’s ordination, said Michele Dillon, a scholar of Catholicism and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.
As pope, he tried to return the church to its historical roots that he felt were lost by a misinterpretation of the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.
"He emphasized time and again the threat against the church and faith in general posed by the forces of secularism, especially in Europe where he witnessed historically Catholic countries embracing legislation extending on divorce, abortion, and gay rights," Dillon said. "But he also spoke out against economic inequality and emphasized the responsibility of highly developed countries toward disadvantaged economies and societies.”
His brief tenure was also marked by a worldwide clerical sex abuse scandal, communication gaffes that outraged Jews and Muslims alike and, more recently, a scandal over leaked documents by his own butler. Many of his stated priorities as pope also fell short: he failed to establish relations with China, heal the schism and reunite with the Orthodox Church, or reconcile with a group of breakaway, traditionalist Catholics.
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