Pope Benedict XVI

It was nearly eight years ago, on the evening of 19 April 2005, that the first puffs of white smoke escaped from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel to announce the election of a new Pope writes Simon Hart. The time was 5.50 pm, precisely 24 hours and 25 minutes after the conclave of cardinals had begun the process of choosing a replacement for Pope John Paul II.

Less than an hour after the sighting of the white smoke, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, the cardinal proto-deacon, stepped on to the loggia overlooking St Peter’s Square to utter the words ‘Habemus Papam’ and tell the world that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, had been elected as Supreme Pontiff, the 264th successor of St Peter, and taken the name Benedict XVI.

Moments later, the new Pope himself appeared. It was 6.48 pm, and his first words as Pontiff came laced with humility. ‘After the great Pope John Paul II, the Lord Cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord. I am consoled by the fact that the Lord knows how to act, even with inadequate instruments and above all I entrust myself to your prayers,’ he said.

On a cold, grey February day in Rome eight years later, the Pope issued another announcement and the world stopped and listened once again. Pope Benedict revealed that from 7.00 pm (GMT) on 28 February, he would be Pope no more. He would become the first pontiff since Gregory XII in 1415 to stand down, having decided he lacked the ‘strength of mind and body’ to fulfil his duties any longer. He had been the oldest new pope for 275 years on his election and turns 86 in April, and his decision earned praise from Archbishop Patrick Kelly, who described it as a ‘humble and selfless decision’ and one whose timing allowed for the election of his successor in time for Easter. The centuries-old process of secret ballots and black and white smoke awaits once more.

Pope Benedict’s announcement came at the end of a meeting with cardinals, a consistory for causes for canonisation. It sent shockwaves through the Catholic flock across the globe yet according to Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, it was a course of action that the Pope had discussed previously, in an interview for the book ‘Light of the World’.

One of the questions the book’s author Peter Seewald put to the Pope was whether he could imagine a situation in which a pontiff might resign. The response was: ‘When a Pope realises clearly that he is no longer physically, mentally, and spiritually capable of carrying out his role, then there is legally the possibility, and also the obligation, to resign.’

There were echoes of that response when Pope Benedict XVI spelled out the reasons for his abdication in his 11 February announcement, made in Latin. He told the cardinals: ‘I have convoked you to this consistory, not only for the three canonisations, 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 barque of St 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 fulfil 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 St 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 St 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 God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.’

These words brought an end to the pontificate of the Bavarian-born Pope Benedict, an intellectual and theologian who had lectured at the universities of Bonn, Tubingen and Regensburg, and served as Cardinal of Munich. The eighth German pope, he produced three encyclicals: ‘Deus caritas est’ (25 December 2005), ‘Spe salvi’ (30 November 2007) and ‘Caritas in veritate’ (29 June 2009) during his papacy, as well as visiting 21 countries across five continents, including a memorable four-day trip to Britain in September 2010.

That visit that will live long in the memory of all those fortunate enough to have heard Pope Benedict preach at Masses in Glasgow, London and Birmingham as well as at a Saturday night vigil in London’s Hyde Park. Young people from Liverpool also had the opportunity to listen to the Pope at World Youth Days, in Cologne (2005), Sydney (2008) and Madrid (2011).

Archbishop Patrick Kelly cited Pope Benedict’s great ‘wisdom’ as he reflected on his decision to resign. The Archbishop said: ‘During his visit to this country in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI clearly appreciated the gift of God of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Two phrases from Blessed John Henry Newman’s hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest’ capture for me the Cardinal and then the Pope whom I have been blessed to know: ‘the loving wisdom of our God’ and ’the wisest love’.

‘Pope Benedict broke open for us, especially during his visit to our country, the wisdom above all given to us in the Word of God and to that Word of God a word of love for us. He has been a herald with only one concern; that in the words of John the Baptist: ‘the Lord must increase and I must decrease’. Therefore in the deepest sense it is no surprise that such a disciple of the Lord, when he discerns that the resources of body and mind are inadequate to fulfil the mission entrusted to him, comes to the clear humble and selfless decision to resign.’

Pope Benedict will play no part in the election of his successor, nor in the running of the Church during the period of Sede Vacante. On 28 February he departed for the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo to prepare for a retirement that will be spent in the former cloistered monastery in the Vatican. The following day, 1 March, the business of finding a new Pope got under way.

The conclave of cardinals that will choose his successor was expected, at the time of writing, to number 117. The list features 61 Europeans, 19 Latin Americans, 14 North Americans, 11 Africans, 11 Asians, and 1 from Oceania. They will be locked inside the Vatican, with no communication with the outside world permitted until they have reached a two-thirds majority.

For each ballot of the voting process, each cardinal must write his chosen candidate under the words ‘Eligio in Summum Pontificem’: ‘I choose as Supreme Pontiff’. The papers, once counted, will then be burned in a furnace in the Sistine Chapel, as ever, black smoke will indicate no decisive vote. Eventually, though, puffs of white smoke will tell Catholics worldwide that the wait to discover the identity of their new shepherd is over.