Pope Benedict XVI will resign on February 28. Shortly after news surfaced, Vatican released Papal Declaration announcing Benedict XVI’s decision.
Full text of Pope’s declaration
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both 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. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.
From the Vatican, 10 February 2013
Unusual as the announcement may seem, Papal resignations are actually nothing new. It is part of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Easter Churches. The only condition is that the decision must be made freely and be manifested in a proper way. There are plenty of precedents too.
Pope Benedict IX was apparently the first Pope to resign his position; he did it for less than savoury reasons though – for financial gain (incidentally, he became Pope again after one of his successors resigned as well, and the other died). The last Pope to resign was Gregory XII. His reasons were rather more noble: he wanted to end the Western Schism – a point in history when there three claimants to the Papal Throne, namely Gregory XII (Roman Pope), Benedict XIII (Avignon Antipope), and John XXIII (Pisan Antipope).
The best known example of a Papal resignation is that of Celestine V. In 1294, after mere months of pontificate, he issued a decree whereby resignations became possible, and then promptly resigned. He lived as a hermit and was later canonised.
It is also alleged that during World War II, Pius XII wrote an official document announcing his immediate and legal resignation in the event he is kidnapped and/or imprisoned by the Nazis. As per the document, the Cardinals were to flee to Portugal (a neutral country) and elect a successor.