Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he will step down at the end of the month, citing his deteriorating health. Benedict's surprise resignation makes him the first pope to relinquish his duties since the 15th century. RFE/RL's Claire Bigg spoke to Kishore Jayabalan, who heads the Rome office of the U.S.-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.
RFE/RL: What is the mood at the Vatican after Pope Benedict's announcement that he is resigning? Does the news come as a shock, or had there been speculation that he may step down?
A little bit of both. The news is a shock in the sense that nobody really expected it to happen now. But I think a lot of people who had seen Pope Benedict in the last few months thought he was looking quite old and tired. He has actually talked about this in the past, that a pope who can't do his duties should feel free to step down. When he said that about a year and a half ago, it was considered quite revealing news.
RFE/RL: How rare are resignations from the papacy?
It has not happened since 1415, and this was only the second pope that we know of to resign. The last time it happened was with Gregory XII.
RFE/RL: Pope Benedict says he is stepping down due to his deteriorating health. Are there other reasons that could have motivated his decision?
He does also talk about the pace of global media and politics and events today. So it's also the circumstances that are surrounding his age and ill-health. I believe what he says, that the pace of the job and the pace of today's modern-society communications make it very difficult for somebody who is not fully fit and fully capable of dealing with these fast changes. He feels like he has been left behind in some way, that he can't effectively lead the church, and that there are probably many other cardinals out there, potential popes, who could do a better job.
RFE/RL: What do you think Benedict's plans are now? Is he likely to stay at the Vatican, or will he move back to his native Germany?
I would not be surprised if he returned to Germany. He at least twice asked John Paul II, the previous pope, to let him return to Germany so he could write, leave Rome, and get back to what he truly loves. When Pope Benedict was elected in 2005 he went on the record, very publicly, saying that he did not want this to happen, that he prayed to God to say, "Please, do not let this happen to me." So my guess is that he will probably want to get as far away from the scene as possible.
RFE/RL: You don't make it sound like Benedict enjoyed his papal duties.
Well, it's a very difficult job, especially for somebody who is already 85. He's not a young man. He says in his letter, very explicitly, that in this day and age it's very hard, you have to have a strong mind in a strong body, and I don't have those right now. I think he realized he was not up to the task. Any bishops in the world can resign for health reasons, so why can't this apply to the bishop of Rome? That's probably what he is thinking.
RFE/RL: What happens now? Do the rules governing the election of popes apply in this case, or does the situation call for special measures?
The College of Cardinals will meet. Pope Benedict announced his resignation for 8 p.m. Rome time on February 28, so the conclave can be held any time after that. Now the question is: Will Pope Benedict take part in the conclave? He might want to just say, "This is a decision for the College of Cardinals and you should decide it." But he is also still the bishop of Rome. He might not take part in the decision, but it might create some interesting discussions to see what happens when you have a pope still around and a new pope comes into office.
RFE/RL: Can Pope Benedict's resignation be seen as hurting the Vatican's standing?
I don't think so. I guess it's always possible, but I think it's something that he probably considered very carefully, very seriously, and did not take very lightly. What this says, we'll have to see, because it is unprecedented. We don't know what the reaction of the world is going to be to something like this. It is quite shocking.