Pope resigning on Feb 28 for health reasons

VATICAN CITY (AP, AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI announced on Monday he would resign on Feb 28 as leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, citing his age and health - the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.

The 85-year-old Pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals on Monday morning.

He emphasised that carrying out the duties of being Pope - the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide - requires "both strength of mind and body".

"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry," he told the cardinals.

"I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering.

"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 St Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary - strengths which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," he said.

Benedict called his choice "a decision of great importance for the life of the church".

The Pope, who has looked increasingly weary in recent months and often has to use a mobile platform to move around St Peter's basilica during Church services, had hinted in a book of interviews in 2010 that he might resign if he felt he was no longer able to carry out his duties.

"The Pope caught us a bit by surprise," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said at a hastily arranged press conference.

French President Francois Hollande said the Pope's decision was "eminently respectable".

A spokesman for the German government, Mr Steffen Seibert, meanwhile, lauded Benedict's "lifelong commitment".

As a Christian and a Catholic, I'm moved," Mr Seibert said at a news conference in Berlin. "The government has the highest respect for the Holy Father."

Benedict's decision to resign sets the stage for the Vatican to hold a conclave to elect a new pope by mid-March, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope does not have to be observed.

There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner - the same situation when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.

The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, who stepped down to end the Western Schism that saw three claimants to the papal throne.

The first pope to give up the papacy was Benedict IX, who was forced to step down in 1045 over a financial scandal. He was succeeded by Gregory VI, who himself resigned in 1046. His successor, Clement II, died in 1047, making Benedict IX pope again.

The best known example of the resignation of a pope is that of Celestine V in 1294. After only five months of pontificate, he issued a decree declaring it permissible for a pope to resign, and then did so himself. He lived two more years as a hermit and was later canonised.

The decree that he issued ended any doubt among canonists about the possibility of a valid papal resignation.