PHILADELPHIA — Pope Benedict XVI, 85, said that he will resign on Feb. 28, and would become the first pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church to do so in nearly 600 years.
Benedict announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals Monday morning and said it was because of his age.
A conclave to elect a new pope will form before the end of March.
“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 recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.
Benedict called his choice “a decision of great importance for the life of the church.”
The Roman Catholic Church can move swiftly to find a new pontiff since there will be no traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope. There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner as was the case when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
Benedict, 85, is the 265th pope, and is the sixth German to serve as pope and the first since the 11th century. The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became pope in April 2005 after the death of John Paul II. He was ordained as a priest in June 1951.
His nearly seven years as pontiff was marked not only by a decline in religious participation throughout the world, but also by sex abuse scandals that have left their damage in the church.
In fact, Philadelphia was center-stage last year in its own priest abuse trial. Monsignor William Lynn became the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic church official jailed for crimes related to sexual abuse of children.
Jurors found that Lynn, former secretary for clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, endangered children by letting a priest who molested children in the 1990s remain in public ministry.
The pope’s announcement comes days before Ash Wednesday, which signifies the beginning of Lent for Christians throughout the world.
Even thought the pope privately considered quitting for months, his announcement caught many Roman Catholics off-guard.
Carole Breslin was attending 7:30 a.m. Monday at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City Philadelphia when she heard the news.
“He was getting up there,” Breslin said. “I guess he feels like he can’t carry in the way he should.”