Benedict XVI steps down as leader of the Catholic Church
Pope Benedict XVI has unexpectedly announced he’ll resign. The 85-year-old head of the Catholic Church said that he is no longer strong enough mentally or physically to serve as its leader. His last day in office will be February 28.
Benedict is the first Pope to resign in nearly 600 years. Most Popes remain in office until the end of their lives. “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to the adequate exercise of the [papal] ministry,” Benedict said in his official statement.
The Pope is the chief pastor, or minister, of the Catholic Church and speaks for the church on important issues. He is considered the highest living authority on church doctrine, or teaching. Today the Catholic Church includes 1.1 billion members around the world.
AN ANCIENT OFFICE
The Catholic Church traces its origins to the very beginnings of Christianity. According to tradition, founder of the church and its first Pope was Saint Peter, one of Jesus’ followers. There have been 265 Popes over the course of almost 2,000 years.
The Pope lives in a walled section of Rome, Italy, known as Vatican City. Vatican City is actually an independent country—the smallest country in population and land area in the world. The Pope is its head of state, or leader.
The last Pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415. His resignation occurred at a time when there was a schism, or split in the church, and there were three opposing Popes! Gregory resigned so a new Pope could be elected that everyone could follow.
SECRET BALLOTS AND SMOKE SIGNALS
When Benedict retires, the College of Cardinals will elect a new Pope. The 209 Cardinals are the highest leaders in the Catholic Church after the Pope.
The process for choosing a new Pope is complicated and secretive. Cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote for the new Pope, who is almost always a Cardinal. A nominee has to receive a minimum of two thirds of the votes plus one to be elected Pope. Each time the cardinals take a vote, they tally the results and then burn the ballots.
People gather in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican to watch for the smoke that means the Cardinals have voted. Special chemicals are added to the burning ballots to signal the results. If there is a clear winner, the smoke from the burning paper will be white. If there is not, the smoke will be black and a new vote will take place. The process repeats until a new Pope is elected.
Benedict was elected after the previous Pope, John Paul II, died in 2005. Benedict’s resignation is controversial. Some people believe that having a living, retired Pope could cause confusion in the church. Others think that Benedict made the right decision—if he is not healthy enough to lead, they think the church should elect someone who is.
After he leaves the papacy (the position of Pope), Benedict is expected to spend time at his summer residence south of Rome. He is likely to then move into a convent in the Vatican.