Pope Benedict XVI announced this morning that he will resign at the end of this month, citing his age and ill health. This will be the first papal resignation since Pope Gregory XII stepped down in 1415 to resolve the western schism.
A papal conclave, in which the College of Cardinals will elect a new pope, will likely be held in March. Once elected, a pope serves until his death or resignation. Technically any Catholic man is eligible to serve as pope, but they are nearly always elected from among the bishops in the College of Cardinals. If a non-bishop were ever selected, he would first need to be ordained bishop.
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and the successor of Saint Peter, who first served in that role. Catholics believe that he is called to serve as the head of the church on earth and, as such, has special leadership authority. The east/west schism in the 1000s occurred, in part, due to a dispute over the nature of this authority, with the eastern (now Orthodox) church believing that the Bishop of Rome is a ‘first among equals’ and the western (now Catholic) church believing his authority to be broader, particularly in church polity and matters of faith and morals.
As a Catholic, I offer my prayers for the Holy Father, and for the whole church as we navigate something that hasn’t happened in nearly six hundred years.