VATICAN CITY: The Catholic Church faced a tricky transition on Tuesday as it prepared to elect a new pope, with many faithful still reeling from the shock resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
The 85-year-old Benedict told a group of cardinals in a speech in Latin on Monday that he will step down on February 28 because he could no longer fulfil his duties in a fast-changing world — the first pope to resign of his own free will in more than 700 years.
A report in Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore said his decision may have been for health reasons.
The newspaper said Benedict underwent heart surgery less than three months ago to replace his pacemaker — an operation that was kept out of the public eye.
While the surgery went well, the report quoted advisors as saying that it made the pope reflect on whether he could continue to guide the Church.
The Vatican has emphasised that the momentous decision was not due to any specific illness and said the pope will retire to a monastery building inside the Vatican — creating an unprecedented situation in which the new pope and his predecessor will live in the same place.
The rumour mill over who could be the next pope was in full swing within hours of the pontiff’s speech but no clear favourites have emerged yet.
Benedict’s next scheduled appearance is on Wednesday at around 0930 GMT, when he is to hold an audience with hundreds of faithful in the Vatican.
He will later celebrate mass in St Peter’s basilica at 1600 GMT for Ash Wednesday — the start of the period of Lent before Easter for Christians.
The mass had been due to be held in the much smaller church of Santa Sabina in Rome but plans have been changed at the last minute.
Only a few advisors knew of the pope’s plan and many in the Vatican hierarchy were caught off guard, with Cardinal Angelo Sodano saying it was “like a lightning bolt in a clear blue sky.”
Within hours, a lightning bolt did strike the very tip of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, an eerie image captured by AFP photographer Filippo Monteforte.
Sodano embraced the pope following the momentous announcement, after which the pope returned to his rooms in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace and broke down in tears, Italian daily La Stampa reported.
“He could not hold back the emotion any more,” the report said, adding that the pope had taken his decision after suffering a fall during a trip to Mexico and Cuba last year that was not made public.
Several observers said Benedict wanted to avoid the fate of his predecessor and mentor, John Paul II, who suffered a long and debilitating illness.
Ordinary faithful among the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics were stunned by the decision.
“An historic, unexpected and humble announcement,” read a headline in Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.
Some faithful said the move was a courageous act that would breathe new life into a Roman Catholic Church struggling with multiple crises and could possibly set a precedent for ageing popes.
“This signals the end of the tradition of popes for life. It is an example and a suggestion for future popes,” said Marco Politi, a biographer of Benedict and columnist for Il Fatto Quotidiano daily.
Others expressed dismay that a leader whose election by the Church’s cardinals is believed to be divinely inspired could simply decide to quit.
World leaders said they respected the decision and generally praised his pontificate, particularly for his efforts to promote inter-religious dialogue.
The pope’s eight-year rule — one of the shortest in the Church’s modern history — also earned him plenty of enemies, however, from the gay community and AIDS activists to the many shocked by the abuses of paedophile priests and multiple cover-ups. afp