Pope's resignation was not forced by health issues, spokesman says

ROME - Pope Benedict XVI is not suffering from any specific disease that forced him to resign, his spokesman said Tuesday, a day after the news that he was stepping down shocked the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

The pontiff is resigning because he does not feel he has the strength to continue, the Rev. Federico Lombardi said, adding that it was a "spiritual" decision.

Lombardi emphasized that Benedict remains pope until February 28, when his resignation takes effect.

He dismissed reports in an Italian newspaper that the pope's decision was linked to a medical intervention to replace the battery in his pacemaker, saying that had been a routine procedure. Benedict has had the pacemaker since he was a cardinal, he added.

Benedict's service will end at 8 p.m. on February 28 but he will continue his work as planned until then, Lombardi said, including an important meeting with the cardinals and priests this Thursday.

He will hold a final audience in Vatican City's St. Peter's Square on February 27, the day before he officially steps down, Lombardi said.

The Vatican does not yet know when cardinals will meet in a conclave to decide who will replace Benedict, Lombardi said. Vatican experts are studying legal documents on the subject, he explained.

But the conclave is likely to come between 15 and 20 days after the pontiff steps down, he said.

It's the first time a pope has stood down in nearly 600 years.

The pope said Monday he would resign "because of advanced age."

"Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," said Benedict, 85, according to the Vatican.

Lombardi said Monday that a new pope would be in place before Easter is celebrated at the end of March.

The pope, born Joseph Ratzinger, 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, Lombardi said.

He won't be involved in managing the church after his resignation.

Benedict's decision has inevitably prompted frenzied speculation over who might assume the papacy in his place.

While Benedict won't be directly involved in his successor's selection, his influence will undoubtedly be felt. He appointed 67 of the 117 cardinals that -- as of Monday -- are set to make the decision.

The number of electors could drop to 115, as two cardinals will turn 80 in March, when their age makes them ineligible to cast a vote. More than two thirds of the final number of cardinals must agree on the next pope, a decision that will be announced to the world in the form a puff of white smoke emerging from a chimney in the Vatican.

The Vatican does not formally invite cardinals to come to Rome for a conclave to elect a new pope, Lombardi said Tuesday.

"The cardinals are intelligent people. They know to come," he said, adding that he expected them to arrive during the first two weeks of March.

The selection of a new pontiff is expected to go smoothly.

"We're not going to have a problem of two competing popes. If Pope Benedict still wanted to have influence, he wouldn't have stepped down," said senior Vatican communications adviser Greg Burke.

"What's interesting is how long ago this decision was made -- shortly after the pope's trip to Cuba, which was in March of last year, so that was before the whole butler story even broke."

The pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted in a Vatican court last year on charges of leaking private papers from the Vatican. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison but was pardoned weeks later.

The leaked papers revealed claims of corruption in the church's hierarchy.

A family friend in Regensburg, Germany, told CNN that Benedict had been thinking of resigning for some time because of his age. He had discussed the decision with his older brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, according to the friend, who asked not to be named because he does not speak for Georg Ratzinger.

Filipino iReporter Rummel Pinera says Benedict's decision to resign should prompt wider debate about how long pontiffs should serve.

"I believe that a pope should have a term limit or be given the privilege to resign from office, if he can't do his various duties effectively anymore due to health reasons or old age," he said.

Meanwhile, Italian iReporter Martina Lunardelli says she was shocked by the pope's decision to resign but feels it was the right one to make.

She warns against judging the pontiff for what she says was obviously a difficult choice, and urges those who are speculating about the pope's resignation to respect matters which are "above" them in knowledge and understanding.

While not quite unprecedented, Benedict's resignation is certainly historic. 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.

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