The pope announces he will step down on February 28 because of his failing health. TODAY's Matt Lauer speaks with NBC's Claudio Lavanga in Rome, who says the resignation "came as a shock," and George Weigel, NBC New Vatican consultant.
By Claudio Lavanga and Alastair Jamieson, NBC News
Updated at 7:42 a.m. ET: ROME -- Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday he will resign on February 28 as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, saying he no longer has the strength to carry out his duties.
The 85-year-old?announced his decision during an address, in Latin, at the "Concistory for the canonization of the martyrs of Otranto", a small event held early in the morning.?
The decision, which took even the Vatican hierarchy by surprise, makes him the first pope to resign since the Middle Ages.
His statement was posted on the Vatican Radio website.
Carrying out the duties of being pope required "both strength of mind and body," it said.
Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Look back at his life from childhood through his papacy.
"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," the pontiff's statement said.
The choice was a "decision of great importance" for the church, the statement added.
There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner, The Associated Press reported.
Contenders to be his successor include Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican's office for bishops.
Reuters quoted a Vatican spokesman as saying the pontiff did not fear schism in the Church following his resignation.
Greg Burke, senior communications adviser to the Holy See, confirmed the pope will step down on February 28 at 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET), leaving the office vacant until a successor is chosen.
Luke Coppen, editor of UK newspaper The Catholic Herald, told the Daily Telegraph: "Pope Benedict?s pontificate has been full of surprises. This is the biggest one of all."
Born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1927, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became the 265th pope in April 2005, describing himself "a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord."?
April 20, 2005: Speaking directly to the cardinals who elected him, Pope Benedict XVI issues a mission statement: To unify all Christians and reach out to other religions. NBC's Keith Miller reports.
Ratzinger served in the Hitler Youth during World War Two when membership was compulsory. He was never a member of the Nazi party and his family opposed Adolf Hitler's regime.?
His tough stance on theological issues had earned him the nickname "God's rottweiler." He was the oldest pope elected in nearly 300 years, according to the Associated Press.
The last pope to step aside was Gregory XII in 1415, who did so in order to end the Great Western Schism. The last papal abdication was in Celestine V in 1294.
The Associated Press added:
The move 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 doesn't have to be observed.
Reuters noted that Benedict XVI's "ruled over a slower-paced, more cerebral and less impulsive Vatican."
"But while conservatives cheered him for trying to reaffirm traditional Catholic identity, his critics accused him of turning back the clock on reforms by nearly half a century and hurting dialogue with Muslims, Jews and other Christians. ...
After appearing uncomfortable in the limelight at the start, he began feeling at home with his new job and showed that he intended to be pope in his way.
Despite great reverence for his charismatic, globe-trotting predecessor -- whom he put on the fast track to sainthood and whom he beatified in 2011 -- aides said he was determined not to change his quiet manner to imitate John Paul's style. ...?
The first German pope for some 1,000 years and the second non-Italian in a row, he traveled regularly, making about four foreign trips a year, but never managed to draw the oceanic crowds of his predecessor.
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