ROME, February 11 (RIA Novosti) - Pope Benedict XVI is to step down as head of the Catholic Church on February 28 due to old age and failing health, Vatican Radio reported on Monday.
“I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant,” the radio quoted the Pope, who is 85, as saying in a declaration.
“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,” he said.
“In today’s world… in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength 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,” he added.
“A Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is,” he said.
That Conclave, a meeting of cardinals, will gather to choose his successor in March, Italian TV channel Rai News reported.
Pope Benedict XVI was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger in Bavaria, Germany, in 1927. He became the 265th Pope in 2005 following his predecessor John Paul II’s death.
The Pope is spiritual leader of the estimated 1.2 billion followers of the Catholic Church, according to the Annuario Pontificio, its annual statistical report.
News of the Pope’s resignation was quite unexpected and spurred an emotional reaction on behalf of officials worldwide.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters that the news was “moving and touching.” He said German Chancellor Angela Merkel was expected to react later.
French President Francois Hollande said Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to renounce his post was “worthy of respect.”
The head of the Russian State Duma’s committee for CIS affairs and ties with compatriots Leonid Slutsky said the Pontiff’s decision may further the dialog between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
“A meeting between the [Russian Orthodox] patriarch and the new Pope, who is likely to be elected soon, may become an important historic landmark in relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church,” Slutsky told RIA Novosti.
“But this will take place only when both churches think all the necessary prerequisites have been fulfilled,” Slutsky said.
Alexander Avdeyev, Russia’s former culture minister, was recently appointed the country’s ambassador to the Vatican. Slutsky said Avdeyev is one of Russia’s most influential diplomats, whose presence in the Vatican would strengthen inter-church relations.
Slutsky also said it was hard to evaluate the motives that the Pope was guided by when he decided to renounce his post, as many processes in the Catholic world are often closed to public.
“I know many cardinals, many Catholic hierarchs have positions that differ from the Pope's on various issues of further development for the Catholic Church,” he said.
Russian church officials have cited dogmatic differences and Catholic proselytism as key obstacles on the way to overcoming the 1054 schism that divided the Christian churches. The Vatican has denied accusations of proselytism.
However, high-level visit exchanges between the churches have become more frequent under Benedict and Russian Patriarch Kirill, who took office in 2009, with both churches pledging to improve relations.
Meanwhile, Russian Protestant leader Bishop Konstantin Bendas said the Pope’s decision positively characterizes the situation in the Vatican, adding that it means people do not think of themselves, but rather of accomplishing the Church’s mission.
“Benedict XVI’s decision to resign for health reasons suggests that he has a truly pastor-like position and that there is a sound situation in the Vatican, where a person does not hold on to office but tries to make the Church’s service most effective,” Bendas told RIA Novosti.
He said he hoped relations between Protestants and Catholics would be improved as a result.
Updated with international reaction.