Lagos, Nigeria - Pope Benedict XVI officially steps down Thursday, 28 February, 2013, as head of the Catholic Church worldwide, becoming the first pope in nearly 600 years to do so.
The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415.
The 85-year-old Benedict, the 265th Pope who was elected 19 April, 2005, had announced his resignation, citing his deteriorating health, according to a Vatican statement issued 11 February and obtained by PANA here.
With his resignation, effective from 8:00 pm local time at the Vatican, the coast is now clear for the election of a new Pope by the Conclave sometime in March.
Vatican sources said the Pope's Twitter account, established only two months ago, will also close as he leaves office.
Instead, Pope Benedict XVI will have a new identity. Retiring into seclusion and constant prayers - he will retire to a former gardener's house at the Vatican to lead a life of prayer, likely removed entirely from public life.
The 85-year-old will first leave Rome to go to the papal seaside retreat, Castle Gandolfo, until a successor is named. Then he will head to the Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church) building, which formerly housed a cloistered convent in the Vatican gardens.
There are also indications that there will no special ceremony following his resignation and that he will not play any part in choosing his successor.
Vatican sources say between Thursday (28 Feb) and when a new Pope is elected, the vacuum will be be filled by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Holy See's Chamberlain. He will be assisted by three cardinal assistants.
To avoid ambiguity, Cardinal Bertone will break the pope's fisherman's ring by hitting it with a small hammer, a tradition that was started when the ring was used to seal documents. Benedict's apartment will also be sealed to prevent any tampering with official documents.
While Pope Benedict XVI delivered his very first Papal mass in April of 2005, on Thursday - 28 Feb., 2013, not quite eight years later, tens of thousands of adoring faithfuls and admirers will cram into St. Peters square to catch a glimpse of him at his final general audience.
On the election of a new Pope, the heads of the Catholic Church have traditionally been chosen at the conclave, a secret meeting of the College of Cardinals inside the Sistine Chapel. All cardinals younger than 80 can take part and they are about 118 at the moment.
There are currently 203 cardinals from 69 countries. The rules of the Conclave were changed in 1975 to exclude all cardinals over the age of 80 from voting. The maximum number of cardinal electors is 120.
During the forthcoming Conclave, there will be 115 cardinal-electors: they have to be younger than 80 to be eligible to vote.
The conclave opens at the Vatican with a mass led by the dean of the College of Cardinals, who then go to the Sistine Chapel to begin their deliberations, which can last for days. The conclave that chose Benedict was one of the quickest in history, lasting only two days.
Sixty-seven of the men who will vote for the new pope were appointed by Benedict XVI, and 49 by his predecessor, John Paul II. About 60 are Europeans, including 21 Italians. There will also be 19 Latin Americans, 14 North Americans, 11 Africans, 10 Asians and one cardinal from Oceania among the voters.
When they begin actual voting, each cardinal will cast his ballot which is torn so it is not counted more than once.
Balloting will continue, with two ballots a day, until one candidate emerges with two-thirds of the vote – a requirement set by Benedict that took the procedure back to a traditional level.
At the end of the procedure, a white smoke emerging from a chimney in St. Peter's Square, will indicate that a new pope has been chosen.
Then, from the balcony of St Peter's Basilica, the traditional announcement will echo around the square: 'Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum... habemus papam!' - 'I announce to you a great joy... we have a pope!'
His name will then be revealed, and the newly-elected pontiff will make his first public appearance.
After saying a few words, the pope will give the traditional blessing of Urbi et Orbi - 'to the city and the world' - and a new pontificate will have begun.