The world was surprised when Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Catholic Church for eight years, unexpectedly announced his resignation on 11 February 2013. He became the first Pope to resign from his position in about 600 years- previous Popes served their positions until their deaths.

Named Joseph Ratzinger, he was born to a German family in 1927. During Hitler’s rule, Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth, which was compulsory for all young Germans then. During World War II, he deserted after he was conscripted as an anti-aircraft gunner.

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was in charge of Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. After Pope John Paul II’s death in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to be the new Pope at the age of 78, the oldest in many years.[1]

During his leadership as the Pope, the Church became embroiled in a series of scandals. Allegations of sexual abuse by priests began to surface, and some claimed that the Vatican was involved in suppressing these cases. It eventually led to a series lawsuits and reports on the subject in 2009 and 2010.

Despite claims by some senior Vatican officials that there was a plot by some against Catholics, the Pope insisted that the Church must accept responsibility, and recognise the “sin within the Church”.

Another controversial issue was the release of Vatican documents by the Pope’s butler, which revealed corrupt practices and mismanagement within the Vatican- pointing to a power struggle between officials.

Despite these issues, the Pope was actively reaching out to other faiths in other countries, visiting “the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem”, and praying for “peace at the Western Wall”.[2]

Ailing health
The Pope’s worsening health conditions began to hamper his ability to perform his duties. It was reported that the Pope has arthritis which affects his knees, hip and ankles.[3] Due to his frail health, his doctor advised him not to take any transatlantic trips. In view of his health situation, the Pope was concerned that “he was gradually losing the abilities he may have had and that it takes to fulfil this office properly”.

The Pope announced his resignation as he felt that his ailing health would impede his duties as the head of the Catholic Church. Officials said that his decision showed “great courage” and “determination”. [4]

Pope Benedict XVI's farewell message. Source:
Pope Benedict XVI's farewell message. Source:

The Pope held his last audience of his pontificate before a crowd of 150,000 in St Peter’s Square at Vatican City on 27 February 2013. He said of his decision to resign: “Loving the church means having the courage to make difficult, agonizing choices, having ever before oneself the good of the church and not one’s own”. He will assume the title of “Pope Emeritus” after his resignation.[5]

[1] Pope Benedict XVI to resign citing poor health
[2] Profile: Pope Benedict XVI
[3] Pope Benedict XVI resigns owing to age and declining health
[4] Pope Benedict XVI to resign citing poor health
[5] Pope Benedict defends choice to resign in last public address