Declaring that he lacks the strength to do his job, Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday he will resign Feb. 28 — becoming the first pontiff to step down in 600 years. His decision sets the stage for a mid-March conclave to elect a new leader for a Catholic Church in deep turmoil.
The 85-year-old pope dropped the bombshell in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprising even his closest collaborators even though he had made clear previously that he would step down if he became too old or infirm to carry on.
There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner — the same situation when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
His tenure was overshadowed by a worldwide clerical abuse scandal, communication gaffes that outraged Jews and Muslims he was 14 in 1941, when membership was compulsory. He later said that this was against his will and that he was soon let out because of his studies. Two years later he was drafted into a Nazi anti-aircraft unit as a helper. He deserted the German army in April 1945, the waning days of the war.
Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger on Monday praised Pope Benedict’s inter-religious outreach and said relations between Israel and the Vatican had never been better.
“During his period [as pope] there were the best relations ever between the church and the chief rabbinate and we hope that this trend will continue,” a spokesman quoted Rabbi Metzger as saying after the pope announced he would resign. “I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
Benedict visited the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
But he also had a series of missteps that angered Israel and Jewish groups, most notably when in 2009 he lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the extent of the Holocaust. Jews were also incensed at Benedict’s constant promotion toward sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope accused of having failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust.
His 2009 visit to Israel drew a lukewarm response from officials at Yad Vashem, who found Benedict’s speech lacking. Israeli officials considered it a glossing over of the Nazi genocide since the pope never mentioned the words “Nazis” or “murder” in his speech and left out the figure of 6 million Jews killed.
Through out the centuries, the relationship between Christian Europe, led by the Roman Catholic Church, and European Jews was marked by forcing Jews to reside in Ghettos, expulsions, inquisitions and persecutions.
In the eyes of many historians and others, the deafening silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust still remains a mark of disgrace for the Church which preaches humanitarianism.
During the 1960, the Vatican, led by Pope John XXIII in The Second Vatican Council made efforts to improve Christian-Jewish relations and issued a proclamation that Jews should not be blamed for the killing of the founder of Christianity.
But it is Benedict’s immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) who is credited with changing the dynamics of the relationship by becoming the first Pope to visit a synagogue and apologizing for the many wrongdoings done to the Jews.