In a surprise announcement, the Vatican has said that Pope Benedict XVI will resign on February 28 -- the first pontiff to step down in nearly 600 years.
A statement released on February 11 quoted the 85-year-old pontiff as saying he no longer had the strength, which he said “in the last few months has deteriorated in me."
The decision sets the stage for a papal conclave
to elect a new pope, which is expected before the end of March and ahead of Easter, the most important festival on the Christian calendar.
Speaking to cardinals at a church council gathering, Pope Benedict said he had to recognize his "incapacity."
He said he had long thought about his decision, which he said was for the good of the Roman Catholic Church.
At a news conference in Rome, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi explained the pope's reasoning.
"The pope says he repeatedly examined his conscience in front of God," Lombardi said. "It was a deep personal decision taken in a climate of prayer in front of the Lord who gave him the mission that he is carrying out."
Lombardi quoted the pope as saying that he "arrived at the certainty that my forces, given my advanced age, are no longer adapted to adequately carry out this ministry," and said that this was the "fundamental motive" behind the pontiff's decision.
The pope's brother, Georg Ratzinger, told the dpa news agency that the pope had begun to find walking difficult.
Talking from his home in the Bavarian city of Regensburg, he said the pontiff had been advised by his doctor not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips and had been considering stepping down for months.
In 2005, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany became one of the oldest elected popes in history at the age of 78.
He was elected to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics following the death of Pope John Paul II.
Child Abuse Scandal
At a news conference, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said: "As a Christian and as a Catholic, one can't help but be moved and touched” by the pope’s surprise resignation.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has been quoted as saying he was "greatly shaken by this unexpected news."
Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger praised Pope Benedict's interreligious outreach, saying improved ties between Judaism and Christianity helped reduced anti-Semitism around the world.
U.S. President Barack Obama offered appreciation and prayers on behalf of all Americans to Pope Benedict. He also extended best wishes to the cardinals who would choose his successor and said the Roman Catholic Church played a critical role in the United States and in the world.
However, Pope Benedict also faced criticism and difficulties during his reign.
His papacy was marked by the ongoing scandal of child sex abuse by priests and accusations that church officials covered up the crimes.
During a visit to the United States in 2008, the pope said the scandal made him feel "deeply ashamed." In 2010, he stated that the Catholic Church had not been vigilant enough or quick enough in responding to the problem of sexual abuse.
And last year the pope's personal butler was tried for stealing Vatican documents.
Paolo Gabriele said he took the documents to expose corruption within the church. He was convicted but pardoned just before Christmas 2012.
It is unusual for a pope to resign, as the job is considered a lifetime duty. The last to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism
among competing papal claimants.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa