A signal from above? Lightning hits St Peter's hours after Pope Benedict stuns cardinals with first resignation in 600 years
- Published on Tuesday, 12 February 2013 17:45
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The Catholic church was thrown into turmoil today after Pope Benedict XVI made the shock decision to quit the papacy because of his deteriorating health.
In a decision that has surprised even his closest aides, the 85-year-old Pontiff said his strength was 'no longer adequate to continue in office due to his advanced age'.
He announced his resignation in Latin to a meeting of Vatican cardinals this morning, saying he did not have the 'strength of mind and body' to continue leading more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide.
A sign from God? Lighting strikes the basilica of St.Peter's dome earlier this evening during a storm that struck Rome on the same day Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation
The decision is unprecedented. He is the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415 and no Pontiff in history has stepped down on health grounds.
The move allows the Vatican to hold a conclave before Easter to elect a new pope, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a Pontiff does not have to be observed.
There are several papal contenders, including Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson who is a front-runner to become the first black Pope.
Complete surprise: Several cardinals did not even understand what Benedict had said during the consistory and those who did were stunned, a Vatican spokesman said
Although officials said there had been no pressure for Benedict to resign, the internet is already awash with speculation that there was a more sinister reason behind his decision.
Speaking in one of the Vatican's state rooms, the Pope today told cardinals: '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.
'I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by 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 St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary - strengths 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.'
Benedict, who at 78 became the oldest Pope in 300 years when he was elected in 2005, said he was making the decision in 'full freedom' but was 'fully aware of the gravity of this gesture'.
Several cardinals did not even understand what Benedict had said during the consistory, said the Reverend Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
Others who did were stunned.
A cardinal who was at the meeting said: ‘We listened with a sense of incredulity as His Holiness told us of his decision to step down from the church that he so loves.’
In a hastily arranged and, at times, shambolic press conference this morning, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said: 'It’s taken us a bit by surprise. We’ve had to organise ourselves very quickly.
‘We’ve had no warning of what the Pope was about to announce. The declaration is crystal clear and we need to go through it word by word.
‘The Pope says that he looked in a personal way and had a deep moment of reflection to consider the mission that he had received from God.’
A Vatican spokesman said he will officially stand down at 8pm Rome time (7pm GMT) on February 28.
The Pontiff, who was known as 'God's rottweiler' because of his stern stand on theological issues, will then retire to the Pope's summer residence near Rome before returning to the Vatican to spend the rest of his life in cloistered accommodation.
As he begins his retirement, cardinals in Rome will begin the process of choosing a successor.
Although the Pope's announcement this morning came as a huge shock to his colleagues, there have been rumours about his health over the last few years.
The Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted Benedict's decision, but in recent years, the Pope has slowed down significantly, cutting back his foreign travel and limiting his audiences.
He now goes to and from the altar in St Peter's Basilica on a moving platform, to spare him the long walk down the aisle.
Benedict has acknowledged having suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in 1991 that temporarily affected his vision, but he later made a full recovery.
In 2009, the Pope fell and suffered minor injuries when he broke one of his wrists while vacationing in the Alps.
A doctor familiar with the pope's medical team said the Pontiff has no grave or life-threatening illnesses.
But the doctor said, like many men his age, the Pope has suffered some prostate problems.
Beyond that, the Pope is simply old and tired, the doctor said on condition of anonymity.
The Pope, who also uses a walking cane, is also understood to be suffering from a degenerative joint disease.
In November 2011, Andrea Tornielli – a well-placed reporter from the Vatican Insider, a project run by La Stampa newspaper in Italy – said Pope Benedict found it agonising to walk even short distances due to 'arthrosis', thought to be an Italian term for osteoarthritis, in his knees, hips and ankles.
The condition forced him to pull out of a trip to Brazil in July.
Mr Tornielli said this was why the Pope began using a moving platform to address crowds during mass in St Peter’s Basilica.
There have also been reports that the Pope was struggling to read texts.
Dr Alan Silman, the medical director of Arthritis Research UK, said Pope Benedict most likely has osteoarthritis, which causes people to lose the cartilage at the end of their joints, making it difficult to move around without pain.
He said: 'It would be painful for him to kneel while he's praying and could be excruciating when he tries to get up again.'
Joe Korner, a spokesman for Britain's Stroke Association, said having a mild stroke also could be a warning of a possible major stroke in the future.
'I would imagine the pope has been warned this could happen and that he should make some changes to his lifestyle,' Korner said, including reducing stress levels.
Benedict has previously stated that Popes who are unable to do their job because of ill health should step down.
His deterioration during the last few months has been particularly noticeable and, according to his brother, he has been considering stepping down for some time.
Georg Ratzinger, who still lives in the family's native Germany, said he had been having trouble walking and his age was weighing on him.
'At this age, my brother wants more rest,' he said adding that the doctor had warned him not to take any more transatlantic trips.
Despite Benedict being open with his family, he appears to have said little to cardinals and staff at the Vatican.