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By David Schuh
For the first time in 719 years, the leader of the Catholic Church and its nearly 1.1 billion followers has voluntarily resigned.
Pope Benedict XVI, who was elected by the papal conclave in April 2005, cited failing health as his reason to step down from the pontificate.
He will leave the Vatican on Feb. 28. Benedict, 85, made the announcement to a group of cardinals Monday morning, saying “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.”
This is the first papal resignation since Gregory XII reluctantly resigned in 1415, and the first pope to voluntarily step down since Celestine V in 1294.
David Hunter, who is a Cottrill-Rolfes Chair of Catholic Studies at UK, said the move shows a strong difference in personalities between Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II.
“John Paul was clearly comfortable with living (and dying) as a public figure,” Hunter said in an email to the Kernel. “Benedict seems to be more of a private person and one that does not relish the spotlight.”
That public persona the pope holds is on display more than ever this time of the year, as Lent begins on Wednesday.
It will be a difficult turnaround for the Church with the new regime taking place near the end of the Easter season.
The papal conclave will meet in March, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said, to hopefully elect a new pope in time for Easter.
“The Vatican, like the Catholic Church as a whole, is like a big ship, and even the death or resignation of the pope does not cause the ship to change its course,” Hunter said. “All of the problems currently on (Benedict’s) desk will be facing his successor. The interesting question, as always, is what sort of successor will the cardinals choose.”
At the age of 78, Benedict was the oldest pope to be elected since Pope Clement XII in 1730.
Thus, the prospect of a resignation was always a lurking possibility.
In a book-length interview with Lombardi, compiled into “Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and the Sign Of The Times”, Benedict hinted that he may be forced to resign at some point.
“If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”