In this March 25, 2012 file photo, Pope Benedict XVI waves from the popemobile wearing a Mexican sombrero as he arrives to give a Mass in Bicentennial Park near Silao, Mexico. On Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI will resign on Feb. 28, 2013. Image Credit: ap

Vatican City: The Catholic Church faced a tricky transition on Tuesday as it prepared to elect a new pope, with many faithful still reeling from the shock resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

The 85-year-old Benedict told a group of cardinals in a speech in Latin on Monday that he will step down on February 28 because he could no longer fulfil his duties in a fast-changing world - the first pope to resign of his own free will in more than 700 years.

A report in Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore said his decision may have been for health reasons. The newspaper said Benedict underwent heart surgery less than three months ago to replace his pacemaker - an operation that was kept out of the public eye.

While the surgery went well, the report quoted advisors as saying that it made the pope reflect on whether he could continue to guide the Church.

Benedict’s next scheduled appearance is on Wednesday at around 09.30 GMT, when he is to hold an audience with hundreds of faithful in the Vatican.

Only a few advisors knew of the pope’s plan and many in the Vatican hierarchy were caught off guard, with Cardinal Angelo Sodano saying it was “like a lightning bolt in a clear blue sky”.

Within hours, a lightning bolt did strike the very tip of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, an eerie image captured by AFP photographer Filippo Monteforte.

Sodano embraced the pope following the momentous announcement, after which the pope returned to his rooms in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace and broke down in tears, Italian daily La Stampa reported.

“He could not hold back the emotion any more,” the report said, adding that the pope had taken his decision after suffering a fall during a trip to Mexico and Cuba last year that was not made public.

Several observers said Benedict wanted to avoid the fate of his predecessor and mentor, John Paul II, who suffered a long and debilitating illness.

Ordinary faithful among the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics were stunned by the decision.

“An historic, unexpected and humble announcement,” read a headline in Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.

Some faithful said the move was a courageous act that would breathe new life into a Roman Catholic Church struggling with multiple crises and could possibly set a precedent for ageing popes.

“This signals the end of the tradition of popes for life. It is an example and a suggestion for future popes,” said Marco Politi, a biographer of Benedict and columnist for Il Fatto Quotidiano daily.

Others expressed dismay that a leader whose election by the Church’s cardinals is believed to be divinely inspired could simply decide to quit.

World leaders said they respected the decision and generally praised his pontificate, particularly for his efforts to promote inter-religious dialogue.

The pope’s eight-year rule - one of the shortest in the Church’s modern history - also earned him plenty of enemies, however, from the gay community and AIDS activists to the many shocked by the abuses of paedophile priests and multiple cover-ups.

An academic theologian and the author of numerous tomes, including a trilogy on the life of Jesus Christ, the pope was often seen as somewhat distant from the day-to-day running of the Church.

Still he tried hard to reach out to a younger, global audience - including by opening a Twitter account just before Christmas with the handle “Pontifex” (“Pontiff” in Latin).

The Vatican said the ex-pope would initially stay at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo while his new home is being renovated.

Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande came under fire on Tuesday after cracking a joke about Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign because of his failing health.

At a press conference with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday, Hollande initially observed sombrely that the Catholic church should be left in peace to organise Benoit’s succession.

But he could not resist adding with a smirk: “We won’t be putting up a candidate!”

Only one other pope has resigned in the Church’s 2,000-year history - Celestine V in 1294 - a humble hermit who stepped down after just a few months saying he could no longer bear the intrigue of Rome and was not able to fulfil his duties.

In 1415, Gregory XII was forced out as part of a deal to end the “Western Schism”, when two rival claimants declared themselves pope and threatened to tear apart Roman Catholicism.

Speculation over who could be the next pope was already rife in Rome, although even seasoned observers cautioned that predictions of future popes are notoriously unreliable.

The field appears wide open, with some saying the papacy could return to an Italian for the first time since 1978, others saying it could go to a North American candidate and still others saying Africa or Asia could yield the next pope.

Several analysts said the fact that the pope was resigning precisely because of his advancing age could favour the choice of a relatively young pope.

The Vatican has said it expects a new pope to be in place in time for Easter, which falls on March 31 this year, although the decision is ultimately up to the cardinals meeting in a secret conclave.

They send a signal of black smoke each day until a decision is taken with a two-thirds majority.

White smoke is then put out from the Vatican palace when a candidate has been approved.

The new pope is then presented to cheering crowds in St Peter’s Square with the famous Latin cry: “Habemus Papam!” (“We have a pope!).