VATICAN CITY: Cardinals around the world began informal contacts to discuss who should next lead the Church through a period of major crisis and the Vatican said it planned a big send-off for Pope Benedict before he becomes the first pontiff in centuries to resign.
At a Tuesday news conference on how the pope plans to spend the next two weeks before he steps out of the limelight, the Vatican also disclosed that the 85-year-old Benedict has been wearing a pacemaker since before he was elected pope in 2005.
It said no specific illness led him to resign, merely old age and diminishing mental and physical strength.
It also said he would not play any role in the running of the church after his Feb. 28 resignation.
“The pope has said in his declaration that he will use his time for prayer and reflection and will not have any responsibility for guidance of the church or any administrative or government responsibility,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.
“This is absolutely clear and this is the sense of the resignation,” Lombardi said, adding that he “will not intervene in any way” in trying to influence the choice of his successor.
The shock announcement sent the Vatican scrambling to change venues of some papal activities so that more people can see him before the resignation.
Wednesday, the pope was to have led a traditional Ash Wednesday service at a small church in Rome but the event has been moved to St. Peter’s Basilica for what will likely be his last Mass in public.
His last general audience, scheduled for the day before his resignation, has been moved from the Vatican’s audience hall, which has a capacity of some 10,000 people, to St. Peter’s Square, which can hold hundreds of thousands.
After he leaves office on Feb. 28, he will go first to the papal summer residence south of Rome and then to a cloistered convent inside the Vatican walls, exchanging the splendor of his 16th century Apostolic Palace for a sober modern residence.
In mid-March, some 115 cardinals will enter the Sistine Chapel to elect the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. Cardinals lose their right to enter a conclave when they turn 80 so the exact number will depend on the day of the start of the conclave.
While the Vatican began preparations for Benedict’s last days as pope, church sources said informal consultations on the phone, at lunches and via emails have begun among cardinals about what type of leader the next pope should be.
After a string of scandals, church experts say the cardinals will be looking for someone who is not only a holy man but also a good administrator.
Benedict has been faulted for putting too much power in the hands of his friend, Secretariat of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Critics of Bertone, effectively the Vatican’s chief administrator, said he should have prevented some papal mishaps and bureaucratic blunders.
Benedict’s papacy was rocked by crises over sex abuse of children by priests in Europe and the United States, most of which preceded his time in office but came to light during it.
His reign also saw Muslim anger after he compared Islam to violence. Jews were upset over rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier. During a scandal over the church’s business dealings, his butler was accused of leaking his private papers.
Speculation has grown that the church could appoint its first non-European leader to reflect the growing weight of regions such as Africa or Latin America, which now accounts for 42 percent of the world’s Catholics.
“It could be time for a black pope, or a yellow one, or a red one, or a Latin American,” said Guatemala’s Archbishop Oscar Julio Vian Morales after Benedict’s announcement.