STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Within the last hour, we have heard that Pope Benedict is resigning at the end of this month. A Vatican spokesman said the pope's announcement, quote, "took us by surprise," suggesting that even the pontiff's closest aides did not know what he was about to do. The last pope to resign was Gregory XII, in 1415.
To hear more about this news, we're joined by Josephine McKenna. She's a journalist based in Rome. Good morning.
JOSEPHINE MCKENNA: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: How exactly did the pope make what is, frankly, shocking news?
MCKENNA: It is shocking. Pope Benedict announced the news that he would leave office in Latin during a meeting with the College of Cardinals at the Vatican on Monday, this morning. The 85-year-old pope said his advanced age was the reason for this resignation, because he could no longer carry out his duties.
MONTAGNE: And, yes, he suggested not so much that he was in ill health, but that he wasn't physically up to this huge responsibility as pope. What does that sort of mean, though? Because, of course, Pope John Paul was ill for years before he died, and he stayed on as pope.
MCKENNA: Indeed. And the way Pope Benedict described it himself, he said that in today's world, which is subject to so many rapid changes, he said both strength of mind and body are necessary. And he recognized himself that his strength had declined in the last few months, and he felt that he was incapable of carrying out this job.
MONTAGNE: Now, as I just mentioned, the last time a pope resigned, it was in the early 1400s. Sort of, what does this mean? How does this fit into the larger picture of the church?
MCKENNA: Well, the news has really rocked the Catholic Church at the highest levels. The dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, immediately described it as a bolt out of the blue, and other officials were shocked. So this has really taken the church by surprise. And as you said, we don't really have a precedent for this in the modern era. Centuries ago, of course, various popes were forced to resign, or chose to resign for various reasons. So this is a precedent.
And they've already talked about the need to call together the conclave, the traditional conclave of cardinals which will elect the new pope. But the church has really been caught a little bit offside here, and it's going to be interesting to see how things develop over the next couple of weeks.
MONTAGNE: Given the surprise nature of this announcement, is there - what thought has gone into who might likely succeed the pope, and even what type of cardinal might be the likeliest to become the next pope?
MCKENNA: Well, yeah. There has been speculation over the last couple of years that the church may turn to an American pope, or may turn to the Third World, where, of course, the number of Catholics seems to be on the increase. Yet Pope Benedict has been very careful about choosing cardinals over the last few months, and many of them have been Italian. So that now raises questions about whether his successor will be Italian.
Incidentally, he doesn't have the popularity that his predecessor had. Pope John Paul II, of course, was loved around the world. And Pope Benedict has been a divisive figure. So the church will be looking for someone who can certainly bring Catholics together and create a vision of the Catholic Church going forward.
MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, this next pope will face what? Just rattle off the sort of things that are still troublesome for the church.
MCKENNA: Indeed. And Pope Benedict was divisive - has been divisive because he took such a hard line on contraception, abortion, divorce. This has been something that continues to divide the Catholic Church. He's had to deal with the pedophile crisis, the instances of clerical abuse that have been taking place across the world, from the U.S., to Germany, Austria and many other countries.
Many Catholics feel that Pope Benedict failed to confront this issue adequately and deal with this - the instances of pedophilia. And this is - it could be something that continues to dog the church in the future.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
MCKENNA: Thank you so much.
MONTAGNE: Josephine McKenna, a journalist based in Rome, speaking to us about the resignation - the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.