Pope Benedict's sudden resignation sends shockwaves through Church
In an announcement read to cardinals in Latin, the universal language of the Church, the 85-year-old said: "Well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of St Peter ...
"As from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours (1900 GMT) the See of Rome, the See of St. Peter will be vacant and a conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is."
POPE DOESN'T FEAR SCHISM
Benedict is expected to go into isolation for at least a while after his resignation. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Benedict did not intend to influence the decision of the cardinals in a secret conclave to elect a successor.
A new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics could be elected as soon as Palm Sunday, on March 24, and be ready to take over by Easter a week later, Lombardi said.
Several popes in the past, including Benedict's predecessor John Paul, have refrained from stepping down over their health, because of the division that could be caused by having an "ex-pope" and a reigning pope alive at the same time.
Lombardi said the pope did not fear a possible "schism", with Catholics owing allegiances to a past and present pope in case of differences on Church teachings.
He indicated the complex machinery of the process to elect a new
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