Today in Rome, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI, will become the first retired pontiff in 600 years.
He steps down “because of advanced age.”
He is set to quit his post at 8.00 p.m. The last Pope to step down before his death was Gregory XII, who in 1415 quit to end a civil war within the church in which more than one man claimed to be Pope.
The Pope, born Joseph Ratzinger, was born and raised in Germany, where he briefly served in the Hitler Youth, despite his objections, and the German military during World War II.
He then established himself as a leading theologian, professor and local Catholic leader before rising up the Vatican ranks.
He will first head to the Pope’s summer residence before he likely retires to a monastery and devotes himself to a life of reflection and prayer.
On Wednesday he bid an emotional farewell at his last general audience acknowledging the “rough seas” that marked his papacy “when it seemed that the Lord was sleeping.”
“Thank you, I am very moved,” Benedict told a cheering crowd of more than 150,000 people in St Peter’s Square.
He said he had great trust in the church’s future; that his abdication was for the good of the church and asked for prayers for cardinals choosing his successor at a time of crisis.
The Vatican said the address, repeatedly interrupted by applause and cries of “Benedict, Benedict” – was the last by the Pope, who by Thursday evening will have the title, ‘Pope emeritus’.
“There were moments of joy and light but also moments that were not easy … there were moments, as there were throughout the history of the Church, when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping,” he said.
When he finished, the crowd, which spilled over into surrounding streets and included many of the red-hatted cardinals who will elect his successor in a closed door conclave next month, stood to applaud.