THE BIG READ: Pope bows to old age
Pope Benedict shocked the world yesterday by saying that he no longer had the mental and physical strength to cope with his ministry.
His announcement left his aides "incredulous" and will make him the first pontiff to step down since the Middle Ages.
The German-born pope, 85, a hero to conservative Roman Catholics but viewed with suspicion by some liberals, told cardinals in Latin that his stamina had deteriorated recently. He will retire on February 28 and the Vatican expects a new pope to be chosen by the end of next month.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope was not resigning because of "difficulties in the papacy" and his decision had been a surprise, indicating that even his inner circle was unaware that he was about to quit.
The pope does not fear schism in the church after his resignation, the spokesman said.
The pope's leadership of 1.2billion Roman Catholics has been beset by child sexual abuse crises, a speech that upset Muslims and a scandal over the leaking of his private papers by his personal butler.
The pope told the cardinals that in order to govern ". strength both of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the past few months has deteriorated to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to fulfil adequately the ministry entrusted to me.
"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."
He also referred to "today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith".
The last pope to resign willingly was Celestine V in 1294 after reigning for only five months. His resignation was known as "the great refusal" and was condemned by the poet Dante in The Divine Comedy.
Before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was known as "God's Rottweiler" because of his stern stand on theological issues.
But, after several years in his new job, Benedict showed that not only did he not bite, he seldom even barked.
In recent months, the pope has looked increasingly frail in public, sometimes being helped to walk by those around him.
Lombardi ruled out depression or uncertainty as being behind the resignation, saying it was not due to any specific illness, just advancing age.
The pope had shown "great courage, determination" and was aware of the "great problems the church faces today", he said, adding that the timing might have reflected the pope's desire to avoid the exhausting rush of Easter events.
Israel's chief rabbi praised Benedict's inter-faith outreach and wished him good health.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church, said he had learned of the pope's decision with a heavy heart but complete understanding.
Elected to the papacy on April 19 2005 at 78 - 20 years older than his predecessor, John Paul, when he was elected - Benedict ruled over a slower-paced, more cerebral and less impulsive Vatican.
But though conservatives cheered him for trying to reaffirm traditional Catholic identity, his critics accused him of turning back the clock on reforms by nearly half a century and harming dialogue with Muslims, Jews and other Christians.
Despite great reverence for his charismatic, globe-trotting predecessor - whom he put on the fast track to sainthood and whom he beatified in 2011 - aides said he was determined not to change his quiet manner to imitate John Paul's style.
A quiet, professorial type who relaxed by playing the piano, he managed to show the world the gentle side of the man who was the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer for nearly a quarter of a century.
The first German pope for about 1000 years and the second non-Italian in a row, he travelled regularly, making about four foreign trips a year, but never managed to draw the oceanic crowds of his predecessor.
The child abuse scandals hounded most of his papacy. He ordered an official inquiry into abuse in Ireland that led to the resignation of several bishops.
Last year, the pontiff's butler was found to have leaked documents alleging corruption in the Vatican's business dealings, causing an international furore.
He confronted his own country's past when he visited the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
Referring to himself as "a son of Germany", he prayed and asked why God was silent when 1.5million people, most of them Jews, were killed there during the Second World War.
Ratzinger was a member of the Hitler Youth during the Second World War, when membership was compulsory.
He was never a member of the Nazi party and his family opposed Adolf Hitler's regime.
But his trip to Germany also prompted the first major crisis of his pontificate. In a university lecture he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying that Islam had brought only evil to the world and that it was spread by the sword.
After attacks on churches in the Middle East, the murder of a nun in Somalia, and other Islamist actions, the pope said he regretted that his speech had been misunderstood.
In a move that was widely seen as conciliatory, in late 2006 he made a historic trip to predominantly Muslim Turkey and prayed in Istanbul's Blue Mosque with a Turkish mufti.
But months later former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami met the pope and said the ill-feeling between Christians and Muslims was still "very deep" because of the remarks the pope had made in his speech in Germany. - Reuters