Pope Benedict XVI is to stand down as leader of the Catholic church, he announced today.
In a decision that has shocked even his closest aides, the 85-year-old Pontiff said his health was 'no longer adequate to continue in office due to his advanced age'.
He announced his resignation in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals this morning, emphasising that leading more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide requires 'both strength of mind and body.'
A cardinal who was at the meeting said: ‘We listened with a sense of incredulity as His Holiness told us of his decision to step down from the church that he so loves.’
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Shock decision: Pope Benedict XVI announces his resignation during a meeting of Vatican cardinals today
Ailing: The 85-year-old Pontiff said his strength was 'no longer adequate to continue in office due to his age'
The Pope told the cardinals: '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.
'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 barque 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.'
He said he was making the decision in 'full freedom' but was 'fully aware of the gravity of this gesture'.
Aware of gravity of announcement: Pope Benedict said he had repeatedly examined his conscience before God
Highly unusual move: The Pope is the first to stand down in the last 600 years
Sense of incredilty: Pope Benedict XVI attends a consistory with cardinals, who were shocked by the decision
A Vatican spokesman said he will officially retire at 8pm Rome time (7pm GMT) on February 28.
The Pope's brother reportedly said the Pontiff was told by his doctor not to take transatlantic trips for health reasons.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said: 'It’s taken us a bit by surprise. We’ve had to organise ourselves very quickly.
‘We’ve had no warning of what the Pope was about to announce.
‘The declaration is crystal clear and we need to go through it word by word.
‘The Pope says that he looked in a personal way and had a deep moment of reflection to consider the mission that he had received from God.’
The decision to resign is highly unusual as the vast majority of incumbents die in office.
He is the first pope to resign in 600 years.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI when he took office at the age of 78 in April 2005.
He succeeded Pope John Paul II, continued serving right up until his death despite suffering a number of health problems including cancer, osteoporosis and Parkinson's disease.
He also survived two assassination attempts, one of which left him severely injured.
Pope Benedict XVI has a reputation as a charming and shy man who is also deeply conservative in his outlook and teaching.
Pope Benedict XVI is to stand down as leader of the Catholic church, it was announced today
Pope Benedict XVI meets members of the Order of the Knights of Malta after the Mass to mark the 900th anniversary of the Order in Vatican City on Saturday. He said his health is too weak to continue in office
The German-born Pontiff, 85, who is resigning due to his age and diminishing strength, was elected to the papacy in 2005, only the second non-Italian Pope since 1522 and the oldest on election since the 18th century.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415.
However, Pope Benedict's decision to retire should not come as too much of a surprise.
He said after he was elected to the Papacy that he had prayed not to get the post and was hoping for a peaceful old age.
As the powerful Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was already well-known within the Catholic world before his election to the top job.
His image on elevation to the Papacy was one of an enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy and a cerebral disciplinarian who was unafraid to crack down on liberals and dissidents within the church.
Pope Benedict XVI (left) during a service in Saint Peter's Basilica to mark 900th anniversary of the Order in Vatican City
While Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), he gained the nickname 'God's Rottweiler' for his pursuit of Catholic theologians and clergy seen to stray from orthodox teaching.
His pronouncements before becoming Pope included labelling homosexuality a 'more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil' and saying rock music could be a 'vehicle of anti-religion'.
The Pope has also proved himself to be strongly against the ordination of women as priests, euthanasia, abortion and the use of artificial birth control.
Since his election as Pontiff his image has softened, leading him to be dubbed 'Benedict the Benign' in some quarters - but he has also attracted considerable controversy.
The Pope's 2009 visit to Africa was overshadowed by a row sparked by comments he made while flying to the continent in which he rejected condoms in the fight against Aids.
His decision in 2009 to lift the ex-communication on renegade English cleric Richard Williamson, who made comments suggesting only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews died in the Holocaust and none perished in gas chambers, also caused uproar.
The Pope later issued a letter expressing his regret about the damage the affair caused to relations with the Jewish community, saying he had not known about Williamson's stance on the Holocaust when he took the decision to lift the ex-communication.
Perhaps his biggest setback as Pope was during his visit to Germany in 2006 when he was caught in a firestorm of criticism from the Islamic world after giving a lecture at his old university of Regensburg.
Quoting from an obscure Medieval text, he cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterised some of the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, Islam's founder, as 'evil and inhuman' - remarks that touched off widespread anger across the Muslim world.
The anger and violence sparked by his comments including attacks on seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza posed one of the biggest international crises involving the Vatican in decades.
In Somalia, gunmen killed an Italian nun and her bodyguard at the entrance of a hospital where she worked, in an attack that some feared was linked to the outrage over the Pope's remarks.
He later apologised, saying he was 'deeply sorry' about the angry reaction to his remarks about Islam and holy war, saying the text he quoted did not reflect his personal opinion.
Pope Benedict XVI waves to pilgrims while standing on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City in April 2005
The Pope was made Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977 after a career as a university professor.
He was born in the village of Marktl am Inn in Bavaria - he explained on a visit to Germany after his election 'my heart beats Bavarian'.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2276884/Pope-Benedict-shock-resignation-Pontiff-85-600-years-stand-longer-strength-carry-on.html#ixzz2Kb0EkwnB
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