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Surprising news this morning from the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI has announced he is resigning at the end of this month. It is an unprecedented departure in modern times. The last time a pope stepped down, it was 1415, the Middle Ages. At 85 years old, Benedict said he was no longer up to the physical demands of the papacy. We've got NPR's Sylvia Poggioli on the line now live from Rome. Good morning.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, Sylvia, I know there was just now a Vatican news conference that you're just emerging from. But tell us, basically what did the pope say about why he's resigning?
POGGIOLI: Well, first of all, he made the announcement at the very end of a ceremony - it's called a consistory - where the pope gathers the cardinals who happen to be in Rome, and there were apparently quite a few today - and at the very end of the ceremony he made this announcement in Latin. And what we've learned is that not all the cardinals immediately understood exactly what he was saying. It was a very brief statement. He said that he has come to the certainty that his - that due to his advanced age he does not have the strength to continue this mission. He said today's world, which is subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, he needs - strength of mind and body are necessary. And he feels that those in his - his strength has deteriorated in recent months, so he announced that as of 28 - 20 hours, which will be 8:00 p.m. Rome time on February 28, he will no longer be the pope. And that means the See of St. Peter, as it's called, will be vacant, and a conclave will be summoned to elect the next pope.
MONTAGNE: Right. So there's a new pope, obviously got to be elected. But I mean what now? Is there any sense of who might be up for the - to become the new pope?
POGGIOLI: We are - I think all Vatican watchers were totally unprepared. There's always a lot of speculation, even the day after a pope is elected, about who will be the next pope. It's a little bit like American presidential elections. But frankly, I think this time people were not prepared. It's not as if the end of his papacy was close. So it's all up in the air. Could be a Latin American. It could be another European. Maybe an Italian, because the Italians have regained a lot of influence inside the college of cardinals, but we do not know who it could be.
MONTAGNE: Well, Sylvia, just rather briefly, what challenges will a new pope inherit from this pope?
POGGIOLI: Well, first of all, let's keep in mind that all the cardinals who are voting cardinals have been appointed either by Pope Benedict XVI or by his predecessor, John Paul II. So they all pretty much are - more or less follow the same kind of line of a conservative dogma, very traditional. So - but this papacy, the eight-year papacy of Benedict, has had a lot of accidents, a lot of sort of scandals, you could say. There have been a lot of embarrassing events. And at one point relations with Muslims were jeopardized by a brash remark that Benedict had made. Relations with Jews were very much in question after the rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop.
And then there's the huge sex abuse scandal, and then scandals also within the Vatican that haven't been dealt - there's a lot of in-fighting in the Vatican. So the pope is - the new pope...
(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)
MONTAGNE: Sylvia, sorry - got to leave it there right now. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli speaking from Rome on the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict.
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