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Benedict in 2007 passed a decree requiring a two-thirds majority to elect a pope, changing the rules established by John Paul II who had decided that the voting could shift to a simple majority after about 12 days of inconclusive voting. Benedict made the change to prevent cardinals from merely holding out until the 12 days had passed to push through a candidate who had only a slim majority.

The timing of Benedict’s announcement is significant: Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday, the most solemn period on the church’s calendar that culminates with Holy Week and Easter on March 31.

By Easter Sunday, the Catholic Church will have a new leader, a potent symbol of rebirth in the church that echoes the resurrection of Christ in its celebration of Easter.

Benedict’s legacy

Among Benedict’s successes, especially cited among the more orthodox and traditional Catholics, were relaxations on restrictions on celebrating the pre-Vatican II traditional Latin Mass and a streamlined process for incorporating Anglican churches fleeing their own denomination over theological trends such as ordaining women and altering traditional Christian teachings on sexuality.

Benedict’s handling of the sex-abuse crisis, though it drew criticism, was also widely considered to be far better than that of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Unlike John Paul, he personally met with victims of clergy sex abuse on several of his journeys, including one to the U.S.

He also issued an unprecedented apology to Ireland’s Catholics over decades of systematic sex abuse and told guilty clergy that they should “submit yourselves to the demands of justice.” Benedict also moved strongly against the Legion of Christ, ordering a full-scale reworking of an order that had enjoyed the favor of John Paul but whose now-repudiated founder had serially abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.

A papal resignation is without recent precedent, but it has happened before. In 1415, Pope Gregory XII resigned at the request of church officials as the first in a series of compromises that helped end the Great Schism, in which there were three different claimants to the papacy. The next elected pope, Martin V, was not selected until after Gregory’s death.

Before that, the last uncontested pope to resign was Celestine V, who left the papacy in 1294. Celestine was imprisoned in a castle near Naples by Boniface VIII, his successor, and was so despised that when Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote “The Divine Comedy” 25 years later, he placed Celestine in Hell’s antechamber.

Benedict himself took a more benign view of his predecessor, praying in 2009 at his tomb in L’Aquila, Italy.

• Jennifer Collins reported from Berlin. Cheryl K. Chumley in Washington contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.