It's an understatement to say that no one saw this coming, but the papacy asks a lot of a man who was almost eighty when he started the job. Now, Benedict says, the demands are getting to be too much for him. It's not the first time a Pope has stepped down, but it is the first time since, well, the printing press.
Usually we get an empty chair (sede vacante) when God decides--that is, when the Pope dies. This time (not the first, but still), a Pope has named the date and time (Feb 28, 8 pm) when the "sede vacante" will begin, and leaves it completely to others to call a conclave and get its work underway. (It was Ratzinger himself who handled those duties the last time.)
On this feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, we have just about enough time for two novenas before the work of the Conclave begins in earnest. (Naturally, the speculation has already begun!) We're also about to begin Lent, and I can think of no more appropriate spiritual reading for this season in the Year of Faith than Benedict's own reflections on the last week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Meanwhile, here's the official statement ("declaratio"):
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. 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 Petrineministry. 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. However, 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 barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill 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, 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.
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.
From the Vatican, 10 February 2013
BENEDICTUS PP XVI
Here you can listen to him as he made the announcement this morning (in Latin):