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Pope resigns months after launching social networking effort

Cardinals to elect successor to @pontifex handle

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Pope Benedict announced his resignation today, becoming the first pope to relinquish the leadership of the Catholic Church in six centuries - and just months after becoming the first pontiff to join Twitter.

The 85-year-old will step down at the end of the month, clearing the way for a conclave to elect his successor. He is the first pope to step down from St Peter’s throne under his own steam since 1415. The last resignation was part of a deal to sort out the great schism in the Catholic Church which left Christendom wrestling with the claims of three different Holy Fathers.

According to the BBC, Pope Benedict said in a statement this morning:

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.

The statement went on:

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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.

Benedict has had to grapple with many challenges since he took on the job in 2005 at the height of the pedophile priest scandal. Even as the sex abuse claims against clerics piled up, he had to deal with feuding cardinals, the Vatileaks scandal, claims the devil himself was abroad within the Vatican, the Mayan apocalypse AND a new Vatican accounting system.

All this as the modern world came to the apparent conclusion that wisdom and moral and spiritual guidance is something best dispensed and digested 140 characters at a time.

The Vatican appeared to be getting on top of those "rapid changes" just a few months ago, with the pope joining Twitter at the beginning of December. He clocked up 229,000 followers within days and as of this morning @pontifex has topped 1.5 million followers.

However, it appears the pope is a sporadic Tweeter: his most recent missive is dated last Thursday when he reminded his flock: “Everything is a gift from God: it is only by recognizing this crucial dependence on the Creator that we will find freedom and peace.”

However, this economy of tweets was in line with the pope’s earlier warnings that “at times the gentle voice of reason can be overwhelmed by the din of excessive information".

Luckily, there is little excessive information in today's announcement.

A Vatican spokesman told the Beeb that the mini-state had no idea what the pope planned to do once he vacates his pontifical role and his successor is chosen.

As for the Twitterati, there is no announcement as to whether Benedict’s successor will get to keep the @pontifex handle. ®

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