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Pope Benedict XVI's resignation explained

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By Susannah Cullinane

(CNN) -- In an unexpected move, Pope Benedict XVI -- born Joseph Ratzinger -- has announced that he is to resign. Benedict was elected pope in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II. We explore what the surprise announcement means for the Catholic Church.

Why has Pope Benedict XVI resigned?

In his statement, Pope Benedict -- who turns 86 in April -- said he had come to the certainty "that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry."

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Pope Benedict had the right and potentially the duty to resign.

But he stressed that the pope's decision was not because of any external pressure.

When will he step down?

The pope said that he would step down at 8:00 p.m. on February 28, Rome time.

When will the next pope be elected?

A meeting of the College of Cardinals to elect the next pope will be held. The gathering is known as a "conclave."

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said there would be elections some time in March and he anticipated that there would be a new pope before Easter.

Is it normal for popes to resign?

It is the first time a pope has resigned in nearly 600 years.

The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415. He stepped down to end the "Great Western Schism" -- during which there were rival claims to the papal throne.

According to the National Catholic Weekly, modern popes have felt that resignation is unacceptable and could encourage factions within the church to pressure pontiffs to step down.

Canon law states that a resignation must be made freely and properly manifested and that the pope resigning must be of sound mind.

What is the election process?

By law, the conclave begins in the Sistine Chapel. On that morning, the cardinals will celebrate the Votive Mass, "Pro Eligendo Papa." That afternoon, the cardinals begin the election process.

The cardinals draw lots to select three members to collect ballots from the infirm, three "tellers" to count the votes and three others to review the results.

Blank ballots are then prepared and distributed. The ballots are rectangular in shape and must bear in the upper half, in print if possible, the words "Eligo in Summum Pontificem," meaning "I elect as supreme pontiff." The electors write the name of the candidate on the lower half and fold it in two.

After writing the name of one man on his ballot, each of the active cardinals -- those under 80 years of age -- walks to an altar in order of seniority and pledges to perform his duty with integrity. Each cardinal then places a folded ballot containing his choice onto a small disc made of precious metal and drop it inside a chalice.

After all votes are cast, the tellers tally the ballots and the result is read to the cardinals. If a cardinal receives two-thirds plus one of the votes, he is the new pontiff.

If there is no winner, another vote is taken. If there is still no winner, two more votes are scheduled for the afternoon.

How is the result of the vote broadcast?

After the votes are counted each time, the ballots are burned. If there has been no winner, a chemical is mixed with the ballots to produce black smoke when they are burned.

Sight of the black smoke emerging from the roof of the Vatican Palace tells those waiting in St. Peter's Square that a pope has not yet been selected.

When a winner has been selected, the ballots are burned alone, and the white smoke indicates there is a new pope.

What will Pope Benedict do after his resignation?

Lombardi said it was expected that Pope Benedict would devote his time to reflection and prayer.

In his statement, Pope Benedict said he wished "to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer."

The Vatican said Pope Benedict would eventually move to a monastery within the Vatican.

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