Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world Monday morning by announcing that he will step down on Feb. 28, saying he could no longer serve "due to an advanced age." He is the first pontiff to resign since 1415.


When the pope was powerful

For centuries, the pope was one of most powerful people in the world. He jockeyed with the kings and monarchs of Europe, who needed his approval – and his church – to rule their own countries.

Pope Benedict XVI lives in a very different time, one in which his office has purview over internal Catholic theology and not much else. But how did the pontiff's power subside over the centuries? And could the modern pope carve out a role that encompasses more than the guiding of the Catholic faithful?

Read the full story, tracing the rise and fall of the pope's once-great power, here.

D.C. Archbishop Wuerl’s statement on pope

Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl is one of 10 American cardinals who will head to Rome in a few weeks to choose Pope Benedict XVI's successor. Wuerl, like his colleagues, has refused to publicly speculate on who might rise to the papal seat.

The archbishop released the following statement Monday afternoon:

“Pope Benedict XVI’s love for the Church is such that he has concluded it would be better not to try to lead this huge flock without the full strength of all of his energies. We pray for him, we pray for the Church. It is a sign of the great humility of this Pope and his love of the Church that he has the courage to recognize that he doesn’t have the physical energy to discharge his duties as Pope. That recognition says to me that he is a very humble and honest person.


“Pope Benedict XVI's legacy is his engagement of faith with the modern world. He has called on all of us to focus on the spiritual mission of the Church, proclaim the Gospel and once again, bring this personal relationship all of us are capable of having with God, back to the foreground…He declared a Year of Faith to remind all of us that there is a basic doctrine that is bedrock for Catholic faith.”

Wuerl also asked the Washington Archdiocese's 60,000 members to pray for Pope Benedict going forward.

Benedict’s meager political legacy

Pope John Paul II with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Munich (later Pope Benedict XVI) in 1979. (AP Photo/File)

“I was the first Western journalist inside the KGB headquarters in 1990,”  Eric Margolis told PBS, recounting his venture into the heart of the Soviet Union’s once-fearsome intelligence service, which had just collapsed along with the empire that it served. “The generals told me that the Vatican and the Pope, above all, was regarded as their number one, most dangerous enemy in the world,” he said. Mikhail Gorbachev, the final Soviet leader, once said of the Cold War’s peaceful end, “It would have been impossible without the pope.”

That pope was John Paul II, Benedict XVI's predecessor, whose reign from 1978 to 2005 saw him assert a remarkably prominent role in global politics. Benedict never quite met John Paul's benchmark, traveling less and playing a smaller role both within and outside of the Catholic world.

Click here for the full story on John Paul and Benedict's dual legacies, a fascinating view of the papacy's place in the modern world.

Will all popes after Benedict XVI abdicate?

Anthony Stevens-Arroyo asked the question on The Post's OnFaith site: Will all popes after Benedict XVI abdicate?

It is a most modern idea to view the pope as CEO of a global corporation, rather than as a living saint chosen by God. This perspective defines church authority according to the modernizing influences of the II Vatican Council (1962-1964) and breaks with the feudal traditions of medieval Christendom, when popes - like emperors - ruled until they died. I predict that Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy will be remembered more as a progressive step towards modernity rather than a pontificate with very conservative pronouncements.
A scholar and promoter of change at the II Vatican Council where as a young cleric he was afforded the status of peritus or “expert,” Joseph Ratzinger was sometimes liberal and sometimes conservative but always thoughtful. Unlike a purely pragmatic administrator, his papacy demonstrated an academician’s sensitivity to human history and theological nuance. Consider how his encyclical Caritas In Veritate was chock-full of nuance for both sides of every issue. Predictably, some decided to attribute to Pope Benedict only the parts that were conservative (gold), and reject what was liberal (red), and the Web site of the Catholic League lists, much like a cafeteria menu, mostly his conservative stances omitting papal statements for redistribution of wealth and concern for the environment.


Thus, as a very complex thinker, Benedict knows that the future church requires more intellectual and physical vigor than he could have mustered. Moreover, the deterioration in the health of his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, during the pedophilia crisis probably influenced his thinking about papal abdication.

Read the full post here.

75% of U.S. Catholics satisfied

Courtesy Pew Research Center

The Post's Peyton Craighill and Scott Clement compiled this portrait of Catholic public opinion on Pope Benedict XVI:

American Catholics expressed wide satisfaction of Benedict's leadership before he announced Monday that he would give up his duties. Roughly three-quarters of Catholics (74 percent) said they were satisfied with “the leadership provided by the Pope” according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, with 34 percent “very satisfied.”

Overall, about one in five were dissatisfied (21 percent). High-level satisfaction with the Pope (34 percent) was a bit lower than for local parish priests (49 percent) and Catholic nuns in the United States (50 percent). Still, the Pope was more popular than American bishops generally (24 percent very satisfied).

Catholics offered a more muted personal reaction to Pope Benedict in a May 2010 CBS News/New York Times poll, a survey that detected dissatisfaction with the church’s handling of child sexual abuse scandals. Some 58 percent of Catholics said the Vatican has done a poor job handling reports of past sexual abuse of children by priests, while 31 percent thought they did a good job.

In that poll, 43 percent of Catholics had a favorable view of Pope Benedict, 17 percent unfavorable and 38 percent unsure/not heard of him. That was up from a 27 percent favorable rating in March 2010.

Only 25 percent of Catholics said Benedict's leadership has helped the Church, while 15 percent said he hurt it, and 48 percent saw mixed results. In 2002, almost twice as many Catholics said Pope John Paul II had helped the church.

Pope defended abdication in 2010

Pope Benedict XVI is the first pope to abdicate in living memory -- a fact that has led many to question whether popes can step down at all.

An analysis in the National Catholic Reporter on Monday ruled that abdication is allowed, though there's little historical precedent. The Reporter also found that Benedict has defended the practice himself.

In "Light of the World," his 2010 book-length interview with journalist Peter Seewald, the pope said:

"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 ...


"When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say someone else should do it."


Benedict's resignation letter, which discussed his failing health, echoed the 2010 statement.

Papal frontrunners on Twitter

When Pope Benedict XVI joined Twitter last year, he generated a huge amount of online buzz for an institution that's often criticized for its approach to the Internet. Benedict's @Pontifex account has attracted more than 1.5 million followers with just 34 tweets. And while that figure is an improvement over no Twitter presence, the pope's account is only the 763rd most popular account on Twitter.

So, how might his successors fair? Just a handful of the papal frontrunners (four out of 12), appear to have Twitter accounts. You can follow them by clicking the buttons below.

Timothy Dolan


Angelo Scola


Gianfranco Ravasi


Odilo Pedro Scherer


The life of a retired pope

We know that Pope Benedict will be stepping down at the end of the month, becoming the first pontiff to abdicate in nearly a millennium. But we don't know what life after the papacy will be like for the former Joseph Ratzinger. The Christian Science Monitor took a look at what the immediate future could hold:

When Benedict formally resigns on the evening of Feb. 28, he will be taken probably by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer retreat of popes, in the hills outside Rome. The 85-year-old is expected to remain there for 15 to 20 days, until the conclave of around 120 cardinals drawn from around the world gathers at the Vatican and elects a new pontiff. Benedict will then take up residence in a cloistered monastery within the Vatican City State. His title at that point? Unclear.


Inevitably he will run into his successor and will still be in daily touch with cardinals and other influential figures within the Holy See. Not only that but, according to the Vatican spokesman, Benedict will continue to write and publish treatises and essays – he is a noted theologian who recently completed a trilogy on the life of Christ.

That could produce a situation where the former pope says one thing on an important matter, while his successor says something different.


“Traditionally popes have not resigned because there is this question of what do you do with two popes,” says John Thavis, an American who has covered the Vatican for 30 years and recently wrote  an insider’s account of the Holy See – “The Vatican Diaries.”


“What should be the role of a former pope – does he have to stay quiet for the rest of his life? What if he speaks up and disagrees with his successor? You then have the prospect of the Church effectively having two popes.”

The world’s first black pope?

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana with Pope John Paul II in 2003. (AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO)

The conclave that will choose a new pope is still several weeks away, and we're entering the fever pitch of speculation around Benedict's successor.

One early question already looms large in headlines and on social media alike: Could the Catholic church elect its first black pope?

Short answer: Maybe. Peter Turkson, a 64-year-old cardinal from Ghana, is one of 12 lead contenders for the church's top job. Bookmakers seem to think he stands a good chance -- according to the Web site Oddschecker, which aggregates odds, he's been given the best ones so far.

Turkson leads the pope's council for justice and peace, CNN reports, and has worked with people from a variety of faiths. Demographically, Africa also represents a growing slice of the world's Catholic population.

But that trend didn't propel a non-European to the papal seat in 2005. And as Daily Intelligencer points out, bookmakers didn't correctly predict who became pope that year, either.

That won't stop some Catholics from celebrating the prospect of their first black pope now. Even rapper Common, an unlikely papal commentator, is apparently weighing in. He told TMZ that Turkson's election would be "a beautiful thing."

Video: Cheers, tears at Ratzinger election

Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI only eight years ago, but the man whom nuns cheered from St. Peter's Square in 2005 bears little resemblance to the one who announced his decision to leave the papal seat on Monday to look after his failing health.

In this video, taken shortly after the conclave that elected him, Ratzinger smiles and waves as followers cry, pray and sing in the plaza below.

"Viva il papa," they begin chanting at one point -- long live the pope.

Photos: The world reacts to pope’s abdication

Catholics around the world greeted the news of Pope Benedict's resignation with surprise, speculation -- and prayer.

Adelina Hidalgo holds a photograph of Pope Benedict as she kneels inside the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, El Salvador. (REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez)

Length of papal elections?

Once the College of Cardinals convenes, how long could it take for them to select a new pope? The longest such conclave in recent history was in 1922, when it took the cardinals five days and 14 rounds of voting to select Pope Pius XI. The quickest turnaround was the following papal selection, in 1939, when it took two days and three rounds of voting to pick Pius XII.

Joseph Ratzinger to Benedict XVI

The Post's graphics department compiled this timeline that traces Joseph Ratzinger's journey from a small town in Germany, where he was born in 1927, to being ordained a priest to being named pope and taking the name Benedict XVI in 2005.

Possible papal contenders

As soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement, speculation began over who would take his place. The Post has a running list of names being floated. Of the 12 men  on the list so far, there are five from Europe, three from South America, two from North America, one from Africa, one from Asia.

The youngest in the group is 55 (Luis Tagle, archbishop of Manila), and the oldest is 71 (Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan). Benedict was 78 when he became pope and is now 85.

Venezuelan reaction has a political edge

Juan Forero, a Washington Post correspondent based in Bogota, Colombia, filed this dispatch:

As word spread that Pope Benedict would step down because of his age and health, the president of the Episcopal Conference of Bishops in Venezuela said the decision served “as a good example” of showing that it is best to leave a position in the face of hobbling incapacity.

In public comments, Archbishop Diego Padron also said the pope had the interest of the church and its renovation in mind. “The pope doesn’t usually give out news in pieces,” Padron said.

It was not lost on Venezuelans that Padron’s message could have been as easily directed at President Hugo Chavez as to Venezuela’s Catholics. That’s because the ailing Chavez hasn’t been heard or seen by Venezuelans since undergoing a complicated surgery for cancer in Cuba two months ago. Since then, the government has only released news on Chavez’s condition in dribs and drabs, delivering few hard facts about the president’s prognosis. That remains a state secret.

Meanwhile, Venezuela has been embroiled in an institutional meltdown as Chavez’s aides try to deal with a range of crises, from a prison riot that left dozens dead to shortages of toilet paper and milk to sky-high inflation and rampant crime. Chavez’s lieutenants claim Chavez remains in charge, but many Venezuelans do not believe them.

The Roman Catholic church has long been critical of Chavez’s autocratic rule. And the president has not had kind words for the church, calling the hierarchy in Venezuela “devils in vestments.”

“This is a luminous moment, a great lesson,” Padron said, speaking of the pope’s announcement. “The pope has been very human, has recognized that he no longer has strength and, with humility, has ended his services. He’s a good example.”

Across the rest of Latin America, the pope’s announcement was met with widespread speculation that the next pope could come from that region. Forty percent of all Catholics are in Latin America, and clergymen from Brazil, Mexico and Argentina are considered contenders for a church that is shrinking in Europe but growing in many developing nations.

Cardinal Dolan on the next pope

New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, joined the "Today" show Monday to talk about the startling, "somber" news of Pope Benedict's unexpected resignation.

Here's what Dolan had to say:

"I'm as startled as the rest of you and anxious to find out exactly what's going on. So, apparently, it is confirmed when you called first, Matt. You and I both chuckled that we thought this might be another rumor, but it's sure enough confirmed so. I find myself eager for some news. I find myself itching to read the statement in Latin -- I hope I can translate it ....and I find myself kind of somber.

"I love this pope. I mean, every Catholic feels that the pope is his father, our holy father; the world looks to him with a sense of affection. I feel a special bond with him: I mean he's the one that appointed me to you all as archbishop of New York, and I'm wearing the ring he gave me and the cross he gave me. So I feel a particular bond with him and a note of sadness, to be honest with you.

"On the other hand, my appreciation for him, which was already high, was enhanced a bit because of his sense of realism. He has such an esteem for the office of the successor of Peter -- which is what the pope is, the bishop of Rome, the successor to St. Peter -- that he says: You know, I may not be up to it now. And perhaps I can best serve Jesus and his church and his people by stepping aside. So I have to admire him immensely.

"I've never been through this before. I'm still unpacking red socks from a year ago when I was made a cardinal . . . I'm going to need some coaching here. And I don't exactly know, except for prayer -- which I already do a bunch of and need to do more of --  except for prayer, I don't know what else to do. I'll await instructions along with everybody else."

On the "sede vacante":

"So we call it the sede vacante [empty chair] when the pope is dead. The chair of Peter, that ancient sign of teaching and unity, is vacant [and] will be vacant after February 28. And the college of cardinals, who are all pastors of parishes in Rome -- myself, remember you came to our church in Rome ... we get together and conclave to elect a new bishop of Rome, a new successor of St. Peter."

What to look for in a successor:

"A good place to start would be to look at Pope Benedict. There's the learning, there's a savviness about the world, there's a theological depth and undeniably a personally piety and holiness, there's a linguistic talent, there's a knowledge of the church universal. Those would all be qualities you look for."

So, could Cardinal Dolan vote for himself for pope?

Dolan jokes: "Crazy people cannot enter the conclave."


Pope’s brother knew months ago

The Post's Michael Birnbaum reports:

Benedict’s decision to step down wasn't a recent one, his brother said Monday.

“He told me months ago,” Georg Ratzinger, 89, who is also a priest, said by telephone from his home in Regensburg, a southern German town close to where he and his brother grew up. “When he told me about it, I was indeed surprised. But I had seen it coming, because of his health, because he kept feeling older and older. You know, in the past, people wouldn’t have gotten that old.”

“He is getting tired faster and faster, and walking has become hard for him,” Ratzinger said. He added that he doubted his brother would ever return permanently to colder Germany.

“He will stay in the Vatican,” Ratzinger said. “The climate there is better for him.”

Ratzinger said that his brother did “the best he could possibly have done” during his eight years leading the church. “I hope that he will have a positive effect in church history and that the spiritual help he has been offering will continue to be noticeable in the future.”

According to St. Malachy, new pope will be the last

While most of the pope-watching world debates who will succeed Benedict XVI, some Catholics are looking backward -- way backward -- to the 12th century, when the Irish bishop St. Malachy is said to have prophesied that the world would end with the 112th pope.

Benedict XVI was ...  the 111th.

According to one popular English translation, Malachy predicted the 112th pope, "Peter the Roman," would "feed his flock amid many tribulations, after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people."

Malachy's prophesies also included predictions about the preceding 111 popes, and some of them appear to have come true.

Catholic Answers, an American lay organization, describes at least two "uncanny" similarities between those prophecies and real life: One in the 14th century, when Malachy predicted there would be a pope "from the bony shoemaker" (the pope ended up being a shoemaker's son whose surname meant "bone") and another centuries later, when a man with lillies and roses in his coat of arms became Malachy's pope "of lillies and roses."

Don't prepare for end times just yet, though. Catholic Answers says many of the prophesies have been wrong, and most modern scholars consider them a forgery made long after Malachy died.

Still, there's at least a little cause for apocalyptic speculation. The church has never had a pope named Peter, and Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson is considered a favorite to replace Benedict.


What happens next?

How is the next pope selected? Cardinal Donald Wuerl shared some insight at a press conference this morning, and my colleague James Arkin filed this report:

The papacy will be officially vacant at 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, at which point a meeting of the College of Cardinals will convene. Wuerl, who is a member of that college, said that "no other declaration of when that will happen has been forthcoming."

And what will they discuss or seek picking the next pope?

"What has to be uppermost in the hearts and minds of all of us is 'What is God asking of us in making a choice for who will fill the chair of Peter?'" Wuerl said. "And I think that's going to be the only consideration: who among this body has the qualifications, the characteristics, the spiritual gifts to fill that chair."

Wuerl said the cardinals will also have to deal with the historic nature of their new selection.

"This will be the first time in modern history that we've had a Pope resign," Wuerl said. "How do we work with all of that? And how do we face the reality now of moving on in a new situation where we will have a former Pope, a retired Pope?"

Wuerl said the cardinal will be looking for a successor who will "focus very, very strongly on the spiritual mission of the church." When asked by a reporter if there will be a push for a younger or non-European pope, Wuerl responded: "Again, all of that is speculation and we're going to have to wait and see."

World leaders react to pope’s resignation

"Respect and thanks" were German Prime Minister Angela Merkel's parting words to Pope Benedict VVI, a sentiment repeated in many languages (if much the same words) across Twitter today.

Leaders from Ireland, the United Kingdom and Lithuania wished the pope well. In a statement released this afternoon, President Obama extended "our appreciation and prayers to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI."

But more interesting than the generic niceties were the glimpses of real surprise and admiration, particularly from leaders in countries where Catholicism plays a large social role.

Italian Prime Minister expressed "shock" and later "deep respect" in a pair of tweets.


French President François Hollande tweeted that the pope's decision was "brave and exceptional."


"Pope Benedict XVI has always been a friend of Mexico and a bearer of messages of peace and reconciliation," tweeted Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, after expressing "solidarity and respect" for the pope's decision to resign.


Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli echoed the sentiment: "Pope Benedict XVI is such a good, holy and humble man that he has put church interests over personal interests."


Mexican and Panamanian Catholics may well have reason to celebrate the pope's resignation -- many suspect his successor will hail from outside of Europe.

"Perhaps we need a pope who can look beyond Europe and bring to the entire church a certain vitality that is seen on other continents," one bishop told the Associated Press.

Abuse survivors criticize pope

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has released several statements today criticizing how Pope Benedict XVI handled reported cases of clergy's sex abuse of minors.

"Pope Benedict followed the same script church officials have used for years, speaking of abuse in oblique terms and only when forced to do so, ignoring the cover ups, using past tense (as if to pretend clergy sex crimes and cover ups are not still happening now)," the advocacy group wrote in a statement posted on its website. "Instead of taking sweeping, proactive steps to deter wrongdoing, he offered only belated verbal apologies and ineffective symbolic gestures."

The group has called on the pope to use his remaining time in the Vatican to "take tangible action to safeguard vulnerable children," such as demoting, disciplining or defrocking members of the clergy who concealed child sex crimes. The group says that the next pope should be someone who will protect children from abuse and reach out to victims of clergy sex abuse, adding: "The era of cover-up and secrecy in the Catholic Church must end.

Twitter’s best Pope resignation jokes

The consequences of the pope's resignation are undoubtedly serious. But the Internet rarely misses the opportunity for a papal pun -- remember when @Pontifex joined Twitter?

It's starting to feel like overkill.

Obama: ‘Church plays a critical role’

President Obama released a statement this afternoon on Pope Benedict's resignation:

"On behalf of Americans everywhere, Michelle and I wish to extend our appreciation and prayers to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Michelle and I warmly remember our meeting with the Holy Father in 2009, and I have appreciated our work together over these last four years. The Church plays a critical role in the United States and the world, and I wish the best to those who will soon gather to choose His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s successor."

Bookies place guesses on papal successor

Britain's major bookmakers are already setting offs on candidates who might replace Benedict XVI, according to the Associated Press. Their top picks: Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson, Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria.

The AP reports: "William Hill made Turkson — one of the highest-ranking African cardinals at the Vatican — its 3/1 favorite Monday, followed by Ouellet at 7/2 and Arinze at 4/1. Ladbrokes also had Turkson as favorite, followed by Arinze and Ouellet. Ireland's Paddy Power also offered short odds on the three, as well as long odds on unlikely candidates — including U2 singer Bono at 1,000/1. It also offered 1,000/1 odds on Father Dougal Maguire, the simpleminded fictional priest from 1990s U.K. sitcom 'Father Ted.'"

Marco Rubio calls pope an ‘excellent leader’

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has joined the ranks of leaders releasing statements on the pope's resignation. Rubio joined the Catholic Church as a child. Here are some of his thoughts:

“Today Pope Benedict XVI displayed the qualities of an excellent leader and a true man of God by putting the interests of the Vatican and the Catholic Church over his own papacy. Since becoming Pope in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI has served the Church honorably, particularly through his work promoting charity across the globe. I wish him well in the future and, as a Catholic, I thank him for his service to God and the Church."

Vatican tourists ‘apply’ to be pope

No, you can't apply to be the next pope. But that hasn't stopped some jokesters in Vatican City from offering up their resumes on Foursquare and Twitter.




If you're wondering how the next pope will actually be chosen, check out this explainer.

Pope’s condition in October

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said at a press conference that he last saw Pope Benedict XVI in October during a trip to Rome. Although the elderly pope used a cane, Wuerl said that he was "not concerned at all" about the leader's health. Benedict was not only very alert, Wuerl said, but also seemed to have a "good bit of energy."

"He presided at meeting after meeting after meeting. There was no doubt that he was in full possession of his faculties," Wuerl said on Monday morning in Washington. "He would give talks to us without notes in front of him. I am younger than the pope, wouldn't have begun my remarks without some notes in front of me. He had no problem at all speaking with great clarity and great wisdom."

Age could play a role in picking the next pope, Wuerl said, as the world is rapidly changing and the job requires much travel.

"I think the Holy Father has determined that in that type of an environment, it would be best to have someone whose physical energy would allow him to travel, that would allow him to be at all these events, that would allow him to do all of these things that physically today a pope has to do," Wuerl said at the press conference.



VIDEO: The Vatican’s dilemma

The Catholic church faces a dilemma in replacing Benedict XVI. Does it choose a leader who can shore up the church's image in the Western, developed world? Or does it attempt to meet the needs of growing Catholic populations in the developing world, particularly Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa?

Check out a two-minute video on WorldViews that explains what the cardinals will likely consider when selecting the next pontiff.

Archbishop Wuerl of Washington stunned by resignation

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said Monday that the pope's resignation "came as an enormous surprise." In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI elevated Wuerl to the College of Cardinals, which will be tasked with selecting the next pope.

Here are Wuerl's opening remarks from a press conference at Cathedral of St. Matthew on Monday morning, via The Washington Post's James Arkin:

"The news that we have just received of the intention of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI to resign effective the end of this month, the 28th of February, it came as an enormous surprise. I received that news very early this morning in a call from Rome. Not that long ago I was in Rome and the Holy Father made no indication at all, not that he would have, of this intention.

"I think it's a sign of the great humility of this Pope and his love of the Church and his courage to recognize as he says in his declaration, that he has come to the conclusion that he doesn't have the energy, the physical energy, any longer, to discharge his duties as pope. That recognition say so to me he is a very humble and honest person and his love for the church is such that he has concluded it would be better not to try to lead this huge flock without the full strength of all of his energies. So we pray for him, we pray for the church.

"Transitions in the Church are not new. With each passing pontificate, the church turns to filling the See of Peter, and this has gone on for 2000 years, so this will not be a new experience, the transition. The fact that it's occasioned by the retirement of the pope is new, certainly in modern times. So we turn out attention now to our prayers for our holy father and to see what the next steps will be."

Video: Pope Benedict announcing his resignation

Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to step down at the end of this month at a meeting with visiting cardinals. The Web site RomeReports has posted video of the announcement (in Latin), which we embedded below. An English translation of the statement can be read here.

Pope’s resignation: Catholic priests and leaders react

Pope Benedict XVI's resignation shocked millions of Catholics worldwide -- so much so, in fact, that at least one Catholic priest slipped up and dropped an "oh my God!" on Twitter.

Catholic leaders have generally been supportive of Benedict on social media, offering prayers for the Pope and memories of his legacy. These priests are from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Kenya, respectively.




But just as many expressed shock -- a little impiously, in a few cases. Longenecker leads a parish in South Carolina; Fathers Vonhogen and Burns are Catholic media personalities in the Netherlands and the U.S.




Now, of course, comes the inevitable speculation on why Benedict resigned and who will come next.




But regardless of their geographical or theological persuasions, most Catholic tweeters can probably agree with Catholic blogger Marc Cardaronella.


How a new pope will be chosen

Popes are historically selected by a papal conclave -- the a meeting of the College of Cardinals. Electors have to be under 80 years old. The Vatican Web site maintains a list of eligible Cardinal electors here.

A few other notes from an explainer posted on AmericanCatholic.org:

*The Vatican summons the conclave of Cardinals 15 to 20 days after a pope's resignation or death.

*Any baptized Roman Catholic male is eligible for election as pope.

* Voting Cardinals are sealed in the Sistine Chapel where the voting takes place, every morning and afternoon.

*After each voting, the ballots are burned. Special chemicals are added to make the smoke white or black. To people eagerly waiting outside, black smoke signifies an inconclusive vote. White smoke announces that a pope has been elected.

* Once a new pope is elected and he accepts, he is introduced at St. Peter's Square with the words "Habemus Papam!" (Latin for "We have a pope!").

Pope will move to monastery of cloistered nuns

After stepping down, Pope Benedict XVI plans to live in a papal residence in the small Italian town of Castel Gandolfo, then return to Rome and live in a monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican for a period of prayer and reflection, said Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office.

(And here's a link to our lead story, which will continue to be updated: "Pope Benedict XVI to resign, citing age and waning energy.")

U.S. Catholic leaders praise pope

Catholic bishops and other church leaders across the country have been releasing statements this morning that lavish praise on the retiring pope. Here's a sampling, courtesy of the Associated Press:

Bishop Robert Deeley, the vicar general of the Boston Archdiocese: "I know of his deep and abiding love for the Church and for fulfilling the saving ministry of Jesus."

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia told the AP that the pope is being realistic about his physical limitations and his decision to resign shows his love and devotion for the church.

Bishop Richard Malone, who heads the Maine diocese, expressed gratitude to the pope for his life of scholarship and leadership.

Bishop Peter Libasci, head of New Hampshire's Roman Catholic diocese, said the announcement shows how the church is a never-ending continuum.

Rep. John Boehner: Americans ‘inspired’ by Pope

House Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, issued a statement on Pope Benedict XVI:

"The prayers and gratitude of American Catholics are with Pope Benedict XVI today. The Holy Father's decision displays extraordinary humility and love for the Church, two things that have been the hallmarks of his service. Americans were inspired by his visit to the United States in 2008, and by his quiet, steady leadership of the Church in uncertain times. People of all nations have been blessed by the sacrifices he has made to sow the seeds of hope, justice, and compassion throughout the world in the name of Our Lord and Savior."

Four other popes who resigned

In the past 1000 years, only four other popes have resigned: Pope Benedict IX in 1045, Pope Gregory VI in 1046, Pope Celestine V in 1294 and Pope Gregory XII in 1415. You can read more about what led them to step down here: "The bizarre stories of the four other popes to have resigned in the last 1,000 years."

@pontifex receives lots of feedback

Benedict XVI was the first pope to join Twitter but he hasn't posted anything since Sunday, when he wrote:

Meanwhile, social media has blown up with comments, questions and speculation about the pope's surprising resignation. The Post's Emi Kolawole wrote a blog post on this topic: "Pope Benedict XVI resigns: Innovation and the pace of the papacy."

Cardinal Dolan praises pope in statement

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, praised the pope in a statement: "The Holy Father brought the tender heart of a pastor, the incisive mind of a scholar and the confidence of a soul united with His God in all he did."

Dolan also praised Benedict for reaching out to the religiously threatened in Middle East and the poor in Africa, and reflected on the pope's 2008 visit to Washington D.C. and New York: "As a favored statesman he greeted notables at the White House. As a spiritual leader he led the Catholic community in prayer at Nationals Park, Yankee Stadium and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As a pastor feeling pain in a stirring, private meeting at the Vatican nunciature in Washington, he brought a listening heart to victims of sexual abuse by clerics."

You can read more here: "Statement of Cardinal Timothy Dolan."

Did the Vatican’s influence recede under Benedict?

Michelle Boorstein, who writes about religion for The Post, reports that some experts say that the influence of the Vatican appeared to recede under Benedict, but that could have been due to his age when he took office and the power of his predecessor’s charisma. She filed this report:

“He had a hard act to follow in John Paul, who was bigger than life. Benedict suffered by comparison because he was much more shy, he wasn’t an actor, he preferred to write books and issue encyclicals rather than travel. And he was old when he was elected,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Catholic writer and former editor of America, the Catholic magazine.

But historically, Reese, said, some popes draw more attention than others. Benedict spoke out regularly against the dangers of unregulated capitalism and terrorism, as well as religious relativism.  Reese said Benedict would go down as the pope who “cleaned up sex abuse” because he demanded bishops around the world institute more extensive preventative procedures, the way the U.S. church has. However, a miniscule number of clergy worldwide have been held accountable and removed for the scandals, which Reese said “has been a problem .. however, he did a lot more than Pope John Paul did.”

The survivors advocacy group SNAP, in a statement, said it hoped the cardinals will select “a man among them who will protect the most vulnerable among the faithful: innocent children … the era of cover-up and secrecy in the Catholic Church must end.”

Parishioners react: ‘Popes come and go’

My colleague Maggie Fazeli Fard stopped by 7 a.m. mass at St. Matthews Cathedral in Northwest Washington, where news of the pope's resignation quickly spread. She reports that one woman called out to a friend: "Did you hear the Pope is stepping down?" Another woman recalled Benedict's visit to the United States in 2008. Maggie also spoke with several parishioners and filed this report:

Davinia Myles, who is homeless, said "Oh, that makes me sad. Maybe he doesn't feel good about what's going on in the church, all the accusations against priests. There are bad things going on. But there are a lot of good things, too."  Myles said that Benedict will be remembered as "a good pope."  "He will be remembered for trying to hold the church together" during hard times, she said, adding: "People come and go in this world for a reason."

Luke Holian, 40, of Maryland, said the retirement decision reflected "the natural order of things. Popes come and go."  "There were a lot of negative perceptions of what Pope Benedict would be. But he was a bridge -- a bridge between Catholics, with the Protestant community, and to an extent with the Muslim world. He was more kind that people thought he would be."  "He definitely had a different style than Pope John Paul. He was less of a poet, more of a philosopher. Maybe that's what his legacy will be; he will be remembered as a pragmatic philosopher," Holian said.

Pope Benedict XVI’s full statement

Pope Benedict XVI announced during a meeting of Vatican cardinals on Monday that he will resign at the end of the month. His full statement, which was posted on the Vatican Radio website, reads: "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 Petrine ministry."

You can read the full statement, which is signed "BENEDICTUS PP XVI" here: "His announcement."