With a few words in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI did yesterday what no pope has done in a half-millennium, announcing his resignation and sending the already troubled Catholic Church scrambling to replace the leader of its 1 billion followers by Easter.
Not even his closest collaborators had advance word of the news, a bombshell that he dropped during a routine morning meeting of Vatican cardinals. And with no clear favorites to succeed him, another surprise likely awaits when the cardinals elect Benedict's successor next month.
"Without doubt this is a historic moment," said Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a protege and former theology student of Benedict's who is considered a papal contender. "Right now, 1.2 billion Catholics the world over are holding their breath."
The move allows for a fast-track conclave to elect a new pope, since the traditional nine days of mourning that would follow a pope's death doesn't have to be observed. It also gives Benedict great sway over the choice of his successor. Though he will not himself vote, he has hand-picked the bulk of the College of Cardinals -- the princes of the church who will elect his successor -- to guarantee his conservative legacy and ensure an orthodox future for the church.
The resignation may mean that age will become less of a factor when electing a new pope, since candidates may no longer feel compelled to stay for life.
"For the century to come I think that none of Benedict's successors will feel morally obliged to remain until their death," said Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois.
Benedict had said as recently as 2010 that a pontiff should resign if he got too old or infirm to do the job, but it was a tremendous surprise when he said in Latin that his "strength of mind and body" had diminished and that he couldn't carry on.
He said he would resign, effective 8 p.m. on Feb. 28.
"All the cardinals remained shocked and were looking at each other," said Msgr. Oscar Sanchez of Mexico, who was in the room at the time of the announcement.
As a top aide, Benedict watched from up close as Pope John Paul II suffered publicly from the Parkinson's disease that enfeebled him in the final years of his papacy. Clearly Benedict wanted to avoid the same fate as his advancing age took its toll, though the Vatican insisted the announcement was not prompted by any specific malady.
The Vatican said Benedict would live in a congregation for cloistered nuns inside the Vatican, although he will be free to go in and out.
Since becoming pope in 2005, Benedict has charted a very conservative course for the church, trying to reawaken Christianity in Europe where it had fallen by the wayside and return the church to its traditional roots, which he felt had been betrayed by a botched interpretation of the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
His efforts though, were overshadowed by a worldwide clerical sex abuse scandal, communication gaffes that outraged Jews and Muslims alike and, more recently, a scandal over leaked documents by his own butler. Many of his stated priorities as pope also fell short: he failed to establish relations with China, heal the schism and reunite with the Orthodox Church, or reconcile with a group of breakaway, traditionalist Catholics.
There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner -- the same situation as when Benedict was elected after the death of John Paul II. As in recent elections, some push is expected for the election of a Third World pope, with several names emerging from Asia, Africa and Latin America, home to half the world's Catholics.