Pope Benedict XVI's historic resignation announcement, which blindsided Catholic Church leaders, may also have given them more time to prepare for a transition than they would have following the death of a pope.
The 85-year-old pope announced Monday that he would step down at 8 p.m. Feb. 28.
"[I]n 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, 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 told a group of cardinals gathered to vote on candidates for sainthood.
Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh called the announcement "shocking" but said it was for the good of the church.
"Pope Benedict clearly believes that, in today's culture where faith in God faces such an extraordinary challenge from relativism and secularism, a clear, strong and energetic voice is needed to lead the church universal and to speak to the modern world," he said.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., former bishop of Pittsburgh, told reporters that the news was an "enormous surprise." Although Pope Benedict walks with a cane, the cardinal said, in October he gave numerous strong, cogent speeches to a synod of bishops without using notes. There has been speculation that his choice to announce his resignation on the church's World Day for the Sick hints at a serious illness. There was no indication of that from the Vatican.
The last pope to resign did so in 1415. Modern popes resisted the idea. But in lengthy interviews with journalist Peter Seewald for the 2010 book "Light of the World," Pope Benedict said he was open to the possibility under certain circumstances. He rejected resignation due to a crisis but said frailty might demand it.
"Moments like [the sex abuse crisis in the church] are the times when one has to be strong and face the difficult situation. One can resign in a time of peace, or when one simply no longer has the strength, but one cannot escape in a moment of danger, saying, 'someone else take care of it,' " he said. "When a pope realizes clearly that he is no longer physically, mentally and spiritually capable of carrying out his role, then there is legally the possibility, and also the obligation, to resign."
FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based liberal Catholic group that advocates the ordination of women and married men, praised the pope's decision, saying, "Pope Benedict is making it clear that papal leadership is an office and doesn't belong to any one person. This is good for the church and bodes well for the future."
The Vatican announced that immediately upon his resignation Pope Benedict would move to the papal summer residence outside Rome and eventually to a cloistered monastery inside the Vatican. He will have no role in the conclave to elect his successor.
Church law says that a conclave is to begin 15 days after the pope's death. However, the pope announced his resignation 17 days before the fact, and there is no need for a funeral or the traditional memorial Masses in Rome.
"We do not yet know the exact date of the conclave, but obviously there will be no need to wait the normal eight days of mourning after the death of the pope. Thus, in two weeks, during the month of March, in time for Easter, we will have a new pope," said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. Easter falls on March 31.
A few Vatican watchers were speculating as early as March 7.
"Every other papal transition has had the sadness of a death to it. This one doesn't. Even people who haven't agreed with everything he said or the positions he's taken over the years have appreciated Benedict for taking this step. And that's very moving to see," said Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia blogger whose Whispers in the Loggia is read by many Vatican officials.
Modern conclaves have been short. The last one to take more than five days was a 54-day marathon in 1831. The 2005 conclave at which Pope Benedict was elected lasted less than 24 hours.
In theory, any Catholic man can be elected. However, the last non-cardinal was elected in 1378.
All cardinals under age 80 can vote, and there will be 117 of them on Feb. 28. Election requires a two-thirds majority. Pope Benedict instituted new procedures to overcome a deadlock. If no candidate is elected within 13 days, there will be a run-off between the two leading candidates, who cannot vote in it.
The last conclave to elect a clear favorite chose Pope Paul VI in 1963.
"John Paul II was a surprise, John Paul I was arguably a surprise and [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger [now Pope Benedict], by and large, was a surprise because he was seen as too radioactive and too old," Mr. Palmo said.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit political scientist at Georgetown University who studies the hierarchy, admitted that many of his 2005 predictions failed, particularly the one about Cardinal Ratzinger being too old. But there are qualities he believes the cardinals will seek.
"They need someone who speaks English, Italian, Spanish and French. Those are the important languages for the church, and they need a linguist. They will look at Italians, because they always do.
"But the most important thing is that each cardinal will look at each candidate and say, 'Do I like this guy? Does he listen to me? Would he listen to me if he was pope? Does he have the same vision of where the church should be going that I do?' Those are the things that are more important than geography," Father Reese said.
Given that the last two popes were theology professors for much of their ministry, "a big question is whether they are going to look for another academic," he said. "We've had two intellectuals in a row. Maybe it's time for a diplomat. Maybe it's time for a manager or a pope who is more pastoral. We won't see any radical change in substance, but we will see a change in style and personality."
Issues that the new pope will be expected to address range from relations with the Muslim world and outreach to secularized Westerners to continued response to the sex abuse crisis and recent bureaucratic chaos within the Vatican.
Papal biographer George Weigel included encroachments on religious freedom in secular Western societies as a high priority for the cardinals, and some outside the church have concerns they want to see addressed. Bishop Donald McCoid, a former Pittsburgher who is head of ecumenical relations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said it's important for the new pope to be a "leader for all Christians" when addressing situations of persecution or violence.
Although Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is on some lists of possible candidates, most observers discount the possibility of any American because of a historical aversion to any pope from a superpower. Eleven Americans, including several serving in Rome, will be eligible to vote.
Candidates mentioned in the past year by John Allen, a veteran Vatican journalist for the National Catholic Reporter, and Enzo Romeo, a Vatican reporter for Italian television, include:
• Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, of Milan, Italy: He thinks like Pope Benedict but is more extroverted and known for promoting dialogue with Muslims.
• Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 68, the Canadian in charge of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops: Also very much like Pope Benedict intellectually, he has Vatican experience that Cardinal Scola lacks, but he is more introverted.
• Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 69, head of the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches: An Italian born in Argentina, he has held important Vatican posts and is known for working effectively with a wide variety of people.
Other names in the mix:
• Cardinal Peter Erdo, 61, of Budapest, the two-time president of the European bishops conference.
• Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, 70, of Genoa, president of the Italian bishops' conference.
• Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, of Sao Paolo, Brazil, a Brazilian of German ancestry with experience at the Vatican.
• Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 70, a brilliant, media-savvy Italian who is president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
• New York's Cardinal Dolan, 63, is on every journalist's wish list because he's so quotable.
• Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, of Manila, Philippines, whose defense of church teaching includes promoting human rights and environmentalism.
• Cardinal Fernando Filoni, 66, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, whose career as a papal representative has taken him all over the world.
• Cardinal John Onaiyekan, 69, of Abuja, Nigeria, known for working with Muslim leaders to end violence and promote human rights.
• Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, 68, of Vienna, Austria, a disciple of Pope Benedict who may have become the "liberal" candidate through actions such as defending the right of a partnered gay man to serve on his parish council.
An Irish gambling website, Paddy Power, has long made book on papal elections, although its statistics have little basis in church reality. Its front-runner at 11-4 odds is Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64, of Ghana, an engaging African in charge of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice who is widely viewed to have undermined his candidacy by showing a film that used dubious statistics to claim that Europe was becoming Muslim. Cardinal Ouellet comes in second at 3-1. One of several Americans on its list is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, a former Pittsburgher, at 100-1. Cardinal Dolan is listed at 25-1.
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published February 12, 2013 5:00 AM