Pope Benedict Announces He’s Stepping Down

Pope Benedict the 16th at the Vatican last month

It was an announcement that caught just about all the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics off guard.

Pope Benedict XVI announced on Monday the he was abdicating, as of the end of this month.

(“XVI” means “the 16th” in Roman numerals.  And “abdicating” is another word for “resigning.”)

It’s the first time a living pope has stepped down in nearly 600 years!

But Benedict is already 85 years old.

And in recent years, observers say, he has looked more and more weary and frail.

“I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of (my job),” the Pope said in his resignation letter.  “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 reason to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

“His age is weighing on him,” said his 89-year-old brother, Georg Ratzinger, in an interview with the Associated Press.  “At this age, my brother wants more rest.”

Benedict was 78 when he was chosen to take over for the late Pope John Paul II in 2005.

(“II” means “the second” in Roman numerals.)

That made him the oldest man to take on the job in several hundred years.

He was also the first German to become Pope in approximately 1,000 years.

A group of 118 cardinals is expected to gather next month at the Vatican – the church’s headquarters – to begin the process of picking a new Pope.

(Cardinals are among the highest-ranking religious officials in the Roman Catholic Church, next to the Pope himself.)

After February 28th, Pope Benedict is reportedly expected to retire to a monastery.

And according to published reports, he will not have a direct say in choosing his replacement.

Despite that, he is expected to have a significant influence on the decision.

The reason?

He appointed 67 of the 118 cardinals who’ll be deciding.

Under the Church’s rules, the new Pope will have to have the votes of 2/3 of the cardinals.

If all goes as planned, Benedict’s replacement will be chosen by Easter, which is March 31st this year.

But right now, no one is sure who that replacement will be.

There are reports that many Catholics want a new pope from Latin America or Africa – the parts of the world where a majority of all Catholics now live.

There are also a couple of possible North American candidates being mentioned, including Timothy Cardinal Dolan from the Archdiocese of New York.

(It’s customary to put the word “Cardinal” right before the person’s last name.)

But right now, it’s pretty much anyone’s guess.

People who watch the Vatican closely also say it’s very unlikely that the next Pope will allow women to become priests – something that would be a huge break with Catholic tradition.

Critics say the lack of women priests is one of the reasons why the Church’s following – and influence – have been shrinking in Europe and North America.

Despite that, no one is expecting the Church to change its conservative stands on many social issues.

As one close Vatican observer told NBC News, “The teaching of the Church is the teaching of the Church.  And it’s not a pope’s prerogative to change it.”