The resignation announcement is a rarity: The last Pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415. There was no printing press at the time, let alone tweets!
Pope Benedict cited his "advanced age" as the reason for his stepping aside and said he will do so on Feb. 28. Of course, speculation is rampant on social networks that there is more to this story than that.
This part of the Pope's official statement seems to indicate the demand of the job was also a factor.
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.
Among the "many rapid changes" in "today's world" is technology, which is constantly evolving, and social media itself, where responses can be instant and news travels quickly. Just hours after the Pope's announcement, dozens of well-known public figures posted their reactions in 140 characters or less. As often the case with major news, jokes circulated as well.
Let's remember he is the first Pope of the Twitter and Facebook age. He was elected on April 19, 2005. Twitter didn't even exist (it was founded in March 2006). Facebook was college only at the time (it opened up for high schools in September 2005, it opened up to everyone in September 2006).
As social networks have risen, it's easier to gauge instant feedback and sentiment across the globe. The Vatican could see this firsthand with a public Twitter account for the Pope that was bombarded with @ replies, many of them negative. When the Pope mentions a world "shaken by questions" pertaining to "the life of faith," this could be part of that. Numerous questions in recent years have had to do with the Church's sex abuse scandal, which the AP reports will be "forever intertwined" with Benedict's papacy.
Responding to constant criticisms in modern society can be demanding for any leader. It's easy to get burned out or tired. The fact that he is 85 years old only adds to these issues.
During his papacy, the Pope did embrace new media. While he warned young people about the dangers of the Internet's virtual world in 2011, he told church leaders last month, "The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young." He likened it to a version of the real world and said it can't be ignored.
His first tweet, on Dec. 12, 2012, was his most retweeted.
Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.
— Benedict XVI (@Pontifex) December 12, 2012
Interestingly, as of this writing, he has not tweeted about his resignation - not even a link to the official statement. Perhaps he did know what he was about to do when this tweet went up in his name on Sunday:
We must trust in the mighty power of God’s mercy. We are all sinners, but His grace transforms us and makes us new.
— Benedict XVI (@Pontifex) February 10, 2013
Vatican Radio notes that shock was one of the strongest reactions when it shared the news on Facebook; one of the first comments it received was "Hacked??"
Even the Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi said he was caught off guard. In a "hastily-called news conference," The New York Times reports, Lombardi said, "The Pope took us by surprise."