VATICAN CITY —
Whoever it is, he will face a church in turmoil: The sex abuse scandal has driven away thousands of people, particularly in Europe, from the church. Rival churches, particularly evangelical Pentecostal groups in the developing world, pose new competition. And as the pope himself has long lamented, many people in an increasingly secular world simply believe they don’t need God.
The timing of Benedict’s announcement was significant: Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday, the most solemn period on the church’s calendar that culminates with Holy Week and Easter on March 31. It is also the period in which the world witnessed the final days of John Paul’s papacy in 2005.
The timing means that there will be a very big spotlight cast on Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Italian head of the Vatican’s culture office who has long been on the list of “papabile.” Benedict selected him to preside over the Vatican’s spiritual exercises during Lent.
By Easter Sunday the Catholic Church will have a new leader, a potent symbol of rebirth in the church that echoes the resurrection of Christ celebrated on Easter.
Benedict, then known as the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had an intimate view as Pope John Paul II, with whom he had worked closely for nearly a quarter-century, suffered through the debilitating end of his papacy.
Benedict himself raised the possibility of resigning if he were simply too old or sick to continue on, when he was interviewed in 2010 for the book “Light of the World.”
“If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign,” Benedict said.
But he stressed that resignation was not an option to escape a particular burden, such as the sex abuse scandal.