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.
Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the Vespers and Te Deum prayers in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on December 31, 2012. He will step down for health reasons at the end of February.
The newly elected Pope Benedict XVI, previously known as German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, greets thousands of pilgrims from the balcony of the St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on April 19, 2005. Ratzinger was considered a front-runner to be elected pope.
Joseph Ratzinger (1st row, 6th from left), then 8 years old, poses with other children during their first holy communion in Aschau am Inn, Bavaria, in 1935.
Josef Ratzinger (right) with his brother Georg during their ordination in Freising, Germany, in 1951.
A photo taken in 1943 during World War II shows Joseph Ratzinger as a German Air Force assistant.
Josef Ratzinger (left), then a professor of theology, talks with Cologne's Cardinal Joseph Frings in Rome, between 1962 and 1965.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger meets with Russian Orthodox Archbishop Wladimir Dimitrowskij (left) during the Evangelic Academy in Tutzing, Germany, in April 1979.
Pope Benedict offers a gift as he visits the Blue Mosque in Istanbul during his historic visit to Turkey in November 2006.
Pope Benedict meets with Bosnian Muslim mufti Mustafa Ceric (left) at the Vatican's first-ever Catholic-Muslim forum in November 2008.
Pope Benedict (left) greets Russian Metropolitan Kirill during their meeting in the Vatican in May 2006.
The U.K.'s Queen Elizabeth II meets with Pope Benedict in Edinburgh, Scotland, during his historic state visit to Great Britain in September 2010.
The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (left), greets Pope Benedict at Lambeth Palace in central London on September 17, 2010.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro (left) meets with Pope Benedict in Havana in March 2012.
Pope Benedict meets with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) in December 2009.
Pope Benedict holds a portrait of the late Pope John Paul II during a meeting with the faithful at Wadowice, Poland, in May 2006. John Paul moved a major step closer to Roman Catholic sainthood in January 2011 when Benedict approved a decree attributing a miracle to him and announced his beatification, a step from sainthood.
Pope Benedict waves as he arrives to attend a meeting with young people in Bkerke in Harissa, near Beirut, Lebanon, on September 15, 2012.
Pope Benedict waves as he arrives to lead a solemn mass in Zagreb, Croatia, on June 5, 2011.
Pope Benedict passes through the gate of the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in Poland in May 2006.
Schoolchildren wave flags showing Pope Benedict in Cameroon during his visit in March 2009.
Pope Benedict meets with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) during an audience at the Vatican, in November 2009.
Mykalay, son of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left), offers a book to Pope Benedict during their meeting in the Vatican in April 2009.
Pope Benedict greets the new ambassador of Iran, Ali Akbar Naseri, during their meeting in the private library in Vatican City in October 2009.
Pope Benedict greets U.S. President Barack Obama (left) during an audience in July 2009.
Pope Benedict's first tweet in different languages was sent by the pontif during his weekly general audience in Rome on December 12, 2012.
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