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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block. Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world today with his decision to step down at the end of this month. It is the first papal resignation since the 15th century. The Vatican says a new pope may be elected before Easter, but as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, it's not clear how the church will function with two living popes.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: At the end of a ceremony with many cardinals present, Benedict delivered his resignation announcement in Latin.
POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Speaking foreign language)
POGGIOLI: The 85-year-old German pontiff said he had come to the certainty that due to his advanced age, he no longer had the necessary strength to carry out his mission. He said that as of 8:00 P.M. Rome time on February 28th, the seat of Peter will be vacant and a new conclave will be convened to elect his successor. The announcement was a bolt from the blue.
Even many of the Pope's closest aides were incredulous. But as Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said at a press conference, Benedict himself had broached the topic in a book-length interview with a German journalist. Lombardi quoted the Pope's words.
FATHER FEDERICO LOMBARDI: (Through translator) When a pope understands clearly that he is no longer physically, mentally and spiritually capable of carrying out the mission that has been entrusted to him, he has the right, and in some circumstances even the duty, to resign.
POGGIOLI: Lombardi said that as soon as he steps down, Benedict will go to the papal summer residence south of Rome. And once a new pope is chosen, Benedict will retire in a cloistered monastery inside Vatican walls where he will dedicate himself to prayer and reflection. But Vatican analysts immediately began speculating on the possible impact of this unprecedented situation in modern church history.
JOHN ALLEN: The fear that having simultaneous popes would risk dividing the church. That is, you would have one camp loyal to the old, one camp loyal to the new one, and some saw that as a church-enforced schism.
POGGIOLI: John Allen is Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.
ALLEN: What it means to have a retired pope is unchartered waters. It's a situation that the church has not dealt with in centuries, certainly has not dealt with in a media-saturated age. And so, exactly what his role will be, when we will see him in public, whether he will travel, whether he will continue to write books and indulge his taste for theology - these are all questions that are going to have to be sorted out in the days and weeks to come.
POGGIOLI: The next pope will be elected by the 117 cardinals under the age of 80. All of them have been chosen either by Benedict or his predecessor, John Paul II, and nearly all reflect their conservative views. During his papacy, Benedict tried to steer the church back to tradition, convinced that it had lost its way due to misinterpretation of the reforms of the second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Spokesman Lombardi said that Benedict will not take part in the conclave and will have no role in choosing his successor. But Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, says Benedict could have a great influence on the cardinals who have sworn allegiance and obedience to him.
ROBERT MICKENS: And it's going to be difficult for cardinals to choose somebody who would have a vision of the church that would vary in any way from the plan or the trajectory that Benedict XVI has put the Roman Catholic Church on these last eight years.
POGGIOLI: Vatican analysts are already speculating about possible papal candidates, including those who most reflect the views of Joseph Ratzinger. The top names are the Italian cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan; Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian who runs the Vatican department for bishops; Argentinean Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who was chief of staff of John Paul II; and the Brazilian Cardinal, Odilo Pedro Scherer, who has European roots and comes from the largest Catholic country in the world. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.