On Monday morning, I woke up to the stunning development that Pope Benedict XVI, the spiritual leader and world face of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church, had announced his resignation effective at the end of this month.
It is historic news which shocked the Vatican, stunned the world and broke with 600 years of tradition.
Consider this: A pope has not resigned since the Middle Ages -- the last one being Pope Gregory XII in 1415. So, it's not something we've ever witnessed in our lifetime.
Could the pope even resign? Pope is a lifetime appointment and successors are usually chosen after a pope has died, like in 2005, when Pope Benedict XVI was chosen to succeed Pope John Paul II.
"The former Joseph Ratzinger came to the highest office in the Roman Catholic church with a reputation as a challenging, conservative intellectual," wrote the London-based The Guardian on its website following Monday's announcement. "But the messages he sought to convey were all but drowned out, first by a string of controversies that were largely of his own making, and subsequently by the outcry -- particularly in Europe -- over sexual abuse of young people by Catholic clerics."
The Guardian continued: "Ratzinger had spent almost a quarter of a century in the Vatican, so it was reasonable for the cardinals who elected him to assume he understood it inside out, and would be keen to improve its workings. But, although he had been an influential and trusted lieutenant of John Paul II, the new German pope was a paradox.
"On the one hand, he was intellectually remorseless. Not for nothing had he attracted the nickname 'God's rottweiler'. Yet, like many scholars, he was timid -- wholly lacking in that desk-thumping vigour needed to foist reforms on clerics whose resistance to change is the stuff of legend."
While Pope Benedict XVI made headlines last December by being the first pope with a Twitter account, when it came time for the Holy Pontiff to deliver the news of his impending resignation, he opted for a much slower moving (and more character-filled) method of delivery. Looking frail, he delivered his resignation in that most ancient of languages originally spoken in ancient Rome, Latin.
Here is an English translation:
Dear Brothers, I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. 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 with 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 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. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom 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 and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of Gold in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.
The Vatican was quick to say that Pope Benedict, 85, was not resigning because of the "difficulties in his papacy," but rather due to his health and advanced age. The news reverberated globally and was met with shock, sadness and disbelief. World leaders shared their thoughts about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
President Obama issued this statement:
"On behalf of Americans everywhere, Michelle and I wish to extend our appreciation and prayers to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Michelle and I warmly remember our meeting with the Holy Father in 2009, and I have appreciated our work together over these last four years. The church plays a critical role in the United States and the world, and I wish the best to those who will soon gather to choose His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI's successor."Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti: "I am greatly shaken by this unexpected news."
British Prime Minister David Cameron: "He has worked tirelessly to strengthen Britain's relations with the Holy See. His visit to Britain in 2010 is remembered with great respect and affection. He will be missed as a spiritual leader to millions."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel: "If the pope himself, after thorough reflection, has come to the conclusion that he doesn't have the strength anymore to carry out his duties, then this has my utmost respect. He had to make a difficult decision."
The Catholic College of Cardinals will meet in conclave at the Sistine Chapel after taking a vow of secrecy to choose Benedict's successor in the near future, after his official resignation at 8 p.m. on February 28, according to the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman.
"Before Easter, we will have the new pope," Father Lombardi said. The start of the Catholic Church's Lenten season begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. Easter Sunday is March 31.
While Benedict won't be involved in the decision to elect a new pope, according to Father Lombardi, his influence will be felt. After all, Benedict appointed 67 of the 118 cardinals who will make the decision. It takes at least two-thirds plus one of the 118 voting cardinals to elect a new leader for the church.
There is no obvious successor, but the leadership of the Catholic Church has a unique opportunity -- a chance for a rebirth -- when they meet to select a new leader. Will it come from outside the usual Italian/western European mold? I hope so. This is a great opportunity for both inclusion and to select someone who is much younger than Benedict.
Remember the energy and excitement when a young (age 58) and charismatic cardinal from Poland, Karol Józef Wojtyla, emerged to begin his reign as Pope John Paul II in 1978? His legacy included becoming the second-longest serving pope in history and the first non-Italian since 1523.
Is there another charismatic cardinal waiting in the wings? I don't know. I can only wish that whoever it is does a better job than Benedict in uniting together Jews, Muslims and Christians with Catholics.
Among those whose names surfaced Monday as possible successors, according to The New York Times, include: Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan; Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada; Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana; Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina; and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York.
According to CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John Allen, regardless of where the next pontiff is from -- whether it be from Italy, Europe, Asia, Latin America or North America -- he will probably continue Benedict's conservative tradition as conservative vision likely will trump geography. So much for a chance to re-examine the Catholic Church's stance on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, the loosening of restrictions on the use of condoms to prevent AIDS and the ordination of women priests.
During Benedict's tenure, the Catholic Church has taken a firm line on issues such as abortion, birth control and divorce. It has also been clouded by a series of sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests, which started in Europe and spread across the Atlantic to the United States. Many church critics believe the church's ship has become adrift.
"So when the pope stunned the world on Monday with his resignation announcement, his supporters and detractors alike almost universally hailed the move as a movement of grace, sounding almost relieved to see the end of what has been a very turbulent journey," wrote Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, in a front-page news analysis published in today's print edition.
While the new pope undoubtedly will have big shoes to fill, one thing is certain as the soon-to-be old pope leaves St. Peter's chair for emeritus status: Pope Benedict XVI leaves the papacy looking and feeling frail, his legacy clouded by scandal and declining faith.