There will be a new Pope by Easter, the Vatican promised this week, after Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement that he will step down as Pontiff at the end of this month.
The highly unusual move – the first of its kind in 600 years – was taken because the frail 85-year former Cardinal Ratzinger (pictured, with the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in the summer of 2005, not long after he became Pope) said he did not have the physical strength to do justice to his office.
It was reported by an Italian agency reporter when she realized she understood the Latin used by the Pope in an address to Cardinals at a consistory to announce three canonisations.
It was widely seen as a brave and humble action from a man who, despite his reputation as a traditionalist, hard-line conservative, is said by those who have met him to be modest and even shy.
Fr Federico Lombardi said that Benedict XVI's decision to retire had taken everyone by surprise. He confirmed that Pope Benedict will leave office on 28 February and will dedicate the rest of his life to study, prayer and reflection.
The Pope's elder brother, 89-year old Fr Georg Ratzinger, a priest in their native Bavaria in Germany, said Benedict had been considering stepping down for months, and that his doctor had advised him not to take any more transatlantic trips.
Fr Ratzinger told the German news agency dpa his brother has increasing difficulty walking and that his resignation was part of a "natural process".
"His age is weighing on him. At this age my brother wants more rest.”
Cardinals over the age of 80 are too old to vote for a new Pope which rules out the former Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor. Nor will the Pope have any say in choosing his successor, said the Vatican which disclosed hewill first go to live at his summer residence Castel Gandolfo.
Once his successor is elected Benedict XVI will live in a monastery that formerly belonged to an order of enclosed nuns on Vatican Hill.
There he will be free to live as he pleases and he is expected to devote the remainder of his life to study, prayer and reflection.
Speaking in Latin the Pope told cardinals that his strength in mind and body "had deteriorated … to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me".
"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 recognise 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.
He thanked the cardinals for their love and work and asked their "pardon for all my defects".
Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, the President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said the news had "shocked and surprised everyone".
But he said: "I am sure that many will recognise it to be a decision of great courage and characteristic clarity of mind and action.
“The Holy Father recognises the challenges facing the Church and that strength of mind and body are necessary for his tasks of governing the Church and proclaiming the Gospel.
“I ask people of faith to keep Pope Benedict in their prayers. We Catholics will do so, with great affection and the highest esteem for his ministry as our Holy Father remembering with joy his Visit to the United Kingdom in 2010. Pray, too, for the Church and all the steps that must take place in the next weeks. We entrust ourselves to the loving Providence of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Prime Minister David Cameron paid tribute to the first Pope to meet a British monarch. Queen Elizabeth is head of the Anglican church.
Mr. Cameron praised his leadership of the Catholic church, and said that he had "worked tirelessly to strengthen Britain's relations with the Holy See."
Benedict's visit to Britain in 2010 was, and would continue to be, remembered "with great respect and affection."
"Pope Benedict's message on that visit of working for the common good is something that spoke to our whole country," he said.
Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O'Brien said: "Like many people throughout the world, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to resign. I know that his decision will have been considered most carefully and that it has come after much prayer and reflection.
“I will offer my prayers for Pope Benedict and call on the Catholic community of Scotland to join me in praying for him at this time of deterioration in his health as he recognises his incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to him.”
Cardinal Sean Brady the pope's decision had been a "profound act of humility".
In an address in Armagh, Cardinal Brady, the primate of All-Ireland who is himself due to step down this year, said it was an "historic day".
"With typical humility, courage and love for the church he has clearly come to the view that the Lord now wants him to use his remaining physical and spiritual energies by serving the church in prayer.
"I think this is a profound act of humility, a conscientious and responsible decision to hand over the ministry of the successor of St Peter in a time of great challenge for the a church and for faith in the modern world."
He added: "On behalf of the Catholic Church in Ireland, I thank him for his generous service to the church and for the great love and concern he has always shown to the church in Ireland."
Cardinal Brady said that Pope Benedict XVI was the "man who had the courage" to make such a decision.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who made world headlines with a furious attack on the Vatican and the Catholic Church for its inadequate response to the child abuse scandals in Ireland, wished Pope Benedict well and said he had given "strong leadership" to the church.
"This is clearly a decision which the Holy Father has taken following careful consideration and deep prayer and reflection," he said.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, said that like most people in Ireland his immediate concern was for the Pope's health and wished him well in his retirement, describing him as someone who had made a huge contribution to working towards world peace.
Northern Ireland deputy first minister Martin McGuinness said: "Interest understandably centres on his health and the deteriorating nature of it. The resignation of a Pope is a most unusual occurrence and this clearly suggests that Pope Benedict's has such very serious concern about his health that he feels he must resign.
"The thoughts and prayers of everyone will be for Pope Benedict. I hope that the lifting of the onerous weight of the responsibilities of such an important world leader will ease the burden on him in his retirement."
The Archbishop of Dublin Dr. Diarmuid Martin said he believed that history would look at the Pope in a "varied way". Pope Benedict had a very clear understanding of some of the moral problems in the church and he had addressed them "head on".
"He was a man who wanted to know a lot about what was happening in Irish society, not in a way of pointing fingers, but of trying to learn and asking me and the Irish church where are we in today's society." he said.
He said Pope Benedict was a private person and that he has a "great personal affection" for him. He said the Pope was "happiest when he was writing".