Age, not a specific health condition, was the reason behind Pope Benedict XVI's decision to stand down as head of the Catholic Church, the Vatican has said, adding that he will play no role in choosing his successor.
In a statement on Tuesday, Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi said age, not ill health was the reason behind Benedict's decision to stand aside.
"The reason is the one the pope gave, that is the perception that his strength is diminishing as he gets older," Lombardi told reporters. "There are no specific illnesses.".
Lombardi said that the batteries for Pope Benedict's pacemaker - an artificial implant that helps regulate heartbeats - were changed in December. But the Vatican spokesman said that "it was not major surgery. On the contrary, it was an absolutely normal and routine operation" which "had nothing to do with his decision."
In his statement, delivered in Latin, Benedict on Monday said that his physical and mental strength in recent months had "deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me."
Only a few advisers were aware of the pope's decision to stand down, catching many in the Vatican off-guard. Cardinal Angelo Sodano said it was "like a lightning bolt in a clear blue sky."
Benedict's announcement is the first voluntary papal resignation since Gregory XII in 1415.
Choosing a successor
As head of the Catholic Church, Benedict officiates over the conclave, a meeting of cardinals. When he steps down, Lombari said, he will not be involved in the conclave responsible for electing his successor - also because his age makes him ineligible to vote in any case.
The rumor mill has been in overdrive since Benedict made the announcement which shocked the Catholic community worldwide, and began to raise speculation about who would head the church after the German-born pontiff formerly known as Josef Alois Ratzinger.
Some have suggested that Benedict's successor might become the first pope from Latin America, Asia or Africa. Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schönborn is another favored European candidate.
"This signals the end of the tradition of popes for life. It is an example and a suggestion for future popes," Marco Politi, a Benedict biographer and columnist said of the 85-year-olds decision to stand aside.
The Vatican, Lombardi said, had not yet decided what title the pope will have once he stands down. Religious experts say one being considered is "Bishop Emeritus of Rome."
Pope Benedict will formally stand down on February 28, at 8 pm (1900 UTC). The time was chosen specifically, because that is when the pope's working day normally ends, Lombardi added.
jlw/msh (Reuters, dpa, AP, AFP)