The news this morning that Pope Benedict will be resigning on February 28 came as a surprise to me – and it seems to just about everyone. Speaking on The Today Show, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that he this announcement was as unexpected to him as it was to everyone else. With so many questions and reactions going around, here are my thoughts on some Frequently Asked Questions.

Can a Pope resign? Yes, he can. Code 322.2 of the Code of Canon Law states: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” This is exactly what Pope Benedict has done: announce his intention to resign the office of Pope (Roman Pontiff) as of February 28, 2013.

Has a Pope ever resigned before? Yes. Most recently, Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415 in order to end the Great Western Schism, during which there were at times two or three men claiming to be Pope. Perhaps the most well-known Pope to resign was Pope Celestine V in 1294. He was a humble, holy hermit who was elected Pope because of his personal holiness after a 2-year long period when the College of Cardinals could not agree on who to elect. Realizing that he did not possess the personal qualities and gifts needed to govern the Church well, he resigned after only five months in the papacy. He was later canonized and is known today as St. Peter Celestine.

Why is Pope Benedict resigning? In his letter to the College of Cardinals, Pope Benedict said that he has come to realize that he no longer has the strength in his advanced age (at 85 years old) to fulfill the duties required of the Successor of St. Peter. He recognizes that the Ministry of the Pope is physically demanding, especially in today’s world of global travel and public ministry, and after lengthy prayer and examination, he feels that the Church would be best served by a Pope who is more physically able to fulfill these tasks. To me, there is great wisdom in this decision – which is clearly made for the good of the Church.

Was there any hint that this was coming? Is Pope Benedict sick? There was no immediate indication that Pope Benedict would resign, and there is no evidence that he is sick. However, Pope Benedict himself has spoken on a number of occasions about the possibility of a Pope resigning. He mentioned it when Pope John Paul II was still alive, and as recent as last fall in an interview with a journalist. So I wasn’t completely shocked that he would resign, just because he has talked about the possibility in the abstract. On another note, today’s announcement comes on the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes and the World Day of the Sick – perhaps a connection?

What will Pope Benedict’s status be in the Church after the resignation takes effect? Will he return to being a Cardinal? This question is really uncharted territory, as even the Vatican has admitted today. While the Code of Canon Law acknowledges that a Pope can resign, it does not say anything else about his status. Pope Benedict has said that he will not take part in the Conclave to elect his successor – he wouldn’t be eligible to vote anyway because of his age (only Cardinals under the age of 80 can vote in a papal conclave). We’ll hear more from the Vatican in the coming days, but my guess is that he would be something of a Pope Emeritus, similar to the status and title given to a bishop after resigning from active ministry – like Archbishop Emeritus Daniel Buechlein, OSB. Since the Pope is first of all the Bishop of Rome, this parallel seems to make sense. He will no longer have the authority of the Pope – to appoint bishops, declare saints, etc. – but would still be able to do the sacramental ministry of a bishop.

Where will Pope Benedict go after February 28? The Vatican announced this morning that he will initially go to Castel Gandalfo, the papal summer residence in the hills outside Rome, until work on a cloistered monastery inside Vatican City is complete. He will then move to this monastery for a time of prayer and study.

When will there be a new Pope? Canon Law and the rules for Conclave (the meeting of Cardinals to elect a Pope) require that all Cardinals under the age of 80 gather in Rome no sooner than 15 days and no later than 20 days after the Holy See is vacant (sede vacante in Latin). For the last 600 years, the See has become vacant upon the death of the Pope, but with this resignation, the vacancy will be effective February 28. So that means that the Conclave would begin in Rome between March 15 and 20, 2013. It begins with preliminary days of prayer and conversation before the elections in secret in the Sistine Chapel. It is expected that a new Pope will be elected before Easter.

What does this mean for future Popes? Does this set a precedence? My guess is that it will not be another 600 years before we see a Pope resign again. Two things, in particular, have changed in recent years – the nature of the papacy and human longevity. With the ease of world travel and communication, the physical demands of the papacy are much greater today than they were even fifty years ago. It takes significant strength and stamina to maintain the travel schedule and responsibilities of the papacy in shepherding the Church throughout the world. The tradition of papal travel, begun especially by Pope John Paul II, has been able to evangelize and bring the message of the gospel to people in all corners of the globe. In addition, we human beings are living longer. A few generations ago, we could not have imagined anyone – let alone a Pope – living to be 90 or 100 years old. With increased longevity has also come the crippling diseases of old age – including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One of the requirements for a papal resignation is that the Pope himself make the decision freely while of sound mind. So, for example, if a Pope were to suffer from advance dementia, once the disease has set in, he could not freely make the decision to resign – and it would not be best for the Church to have a Pope who could not fulfill his responsibilities but also could not resign. With these two changing factors – among others – I would not be surprised that Pope Benedict’s resignation is the beginning of a new era in papal leadership.

Where do we go from here? First, we pray for Pope Benedict XVI. I am sure this was a difficult decision to make – but always with the best of the Church in mind. He continues to teach us through his wise exercise of leadership. We also pray for the College of Cardinals as they prepare to elect the next Successor of St. Peter. And we can also do our part to share accurate and faithful information with our friends, neighbors, and co-workers – there is a lot of confusion and many opinions in the media right now, and we can contribute positively to the public conversations.