Becoming the first pope to do so in over 600 years, Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he will resign from his duties effective Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. European Central Time.
Citing health reasons and lack of strength for the job, Benedict first gave the announcement in Latin in a meeting of Vatican cardinals. Benedict was the oldest pope to be appointed since Clement XII in 1730 when he was elected in April 2005.
"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," Benedict said in a Vatican news release.
His announcement came as a surprise to everyone worldwide, the Rev. Thomas Saucier of St. Thomas More Newman Center said.
"I was shocked. Everyone I've talked to has been shocked," Saucier said. "It makes perfect sense. It's a very humble thing to do. Here's a guy that realizes, 'You know, I just don't have the energy to do that anymore.' I think it was a very noble thing to do."
Saucier said these days more than ever, being pope requires a stamina and energy that Benedict realized at age 85 he no longer had. He said this could have the effect of setting a precedent for popes to come that it's OK to step down.
"You could rule the church in the Middle Ages from Italy and you didn't have to go anywhere. The world and even the Catholic world is much bigger now," Saucier said. "(The position of pope) requires someone who has the stamina and the vitality to go to these different places and do these things. I think he realized that he doesn't have that stamina to do that anymore. I think everyone is shocked, but then when they think about it, it makes great sense."
Benedict's resignation came as a surprise to many student Catholics as well, senior Danielle Jablanski said.
"I found out via Twitter and I assumed there must have been some sort of scandal that caused him to resign at first," Jablanski said. "But then I saw that it was just for health reasons. He's like the president for our religion. He personifies the religion and he's been advocating Christianity because it has been dwindling."
Not only did Benedict's resignation come as a shock, but it also sends the Vatican into uncharted waters in regards to how to navigate the situation, assistant professor of religious studies Rabia Gregory said.
"Basically the last time anybody stepped down without there being any kind of controversy about his papacy, or there being two popes at the same time, he was imprisoned," Gregory said.
The last pope who willingly resigned was Pope Celestine V on Dec. 13, 1294. After stepping down, Celestine hoped to return to life as a hermit. However, his successor, Boniface VIII, destroyed most of the records of Celestine's short time in office and imprisoned Celestine.
The most recent pope to resign prior to Benedict was Gregory XII in 1415. He did so because at the time, he was one of three people claiming to be the legitimate pope and he was essentially forced to step down, Gregory said.
"I suspect that it's going to introduce some new precedents for ways popes can resign," Gregory said. "They're going to have to write some new rules when a new pope is elected as to what the relationship between the new pope and Benedict will be and what Benedict's title will be."
A conclave of the College of Cardinals will elect a new pope in March. By canon law, the consistory must be scheduled within 20 days of the resignation of Benedict XVI. The cardinals will reach a decision by Easter, according to a Vatican news release.
While Benedict will not have a vote, many of the cardinals in the college were chosen by Benedict.
Although many have cast their predictions as to whom Benedict's successor will be, guessing the outcome is not easily done, Saucier said.
"Typically, the only time they've gotten those predictions right in the last 50 years was with Pope Benedict XIV," Saucier said. "In my experience, most of the time they try to predict and it never works."
With the Catholic church growing in places like Latin America, Africa and Asia, this could be the time for the conclave to elect a third-world pope, Saucier said.
"It's potentially the time," Saucier said. "One of the names I've heard tossed around is Leonardo Sandri. His parents were Italian but he was born in Buenos Aires in Argentina. Now, who knows, but I could see someone like that because he's Latin American and he has close ties to Italy so he can be a sort of bridge with that."
But with over half of the cardinals being European, the likelihood of a non-European pope is slim, Gregory said.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they don't pick someone from Asia, Africa or Latin America," Gregory said. "It'd be great if they would, from a diversity perspective. But when you think about the people voting, most of them are older and are European and I'm not sure that's who they'd vote for."
In selecting a new pope, the College of Cardinals will probably look for someone who can speak to people globally, Saucier said.
"I think it will be someone that has a more global perspective and a broader experience of church," Saucier said.
Someone who can communicate easily with the changing technology would be beneficial for the Church, Jablanski said.
"We need someone who can reach the youth in the way that modern Christianity has done," Jablanski said.
The Catholic community will remember Benedict as an ardent academic and overall humble pope, Saucier said.
"He will be remembered for being an academic shadow of that," Saucier said. "I think in a certain sense he's accepting about that. He's a very different man that Pope John Paul II in many, many ways. I think he's a very humble man."
People will remember him for the three encyclicals he authored, which he called the three cardinal virtues, Saucier said. He said these teachings were written in a way that made them relatable to all Catholics.
"I think everyone was thinking with his strong academic background that he was going to write something that was going to be very theologically complex and I think it was very sensitive of him to say 'No, let's write on faith, hope and love,'" Saucier said. "By and large it was something anyone could read, they didn't have to have a Ph.D. in theology."
But Saucier said much of Benedict's work will be tainted by a worldwide clerical pedophilia scandal that gained media attention during his papacy.
"Obviously the priest pedophile abuse scandal is unfortunately going to be a blemish," Saucier said. "His pontificate was clouded by that whole issue. But to be honest, he actually did, I know it doesn't sound like a lot, but he did more than some of his predecessors."
Benedict hopes to live a life of prayer in a converted monastery on the far northern edge of the Vatican gardens, according to a Vatican news release.