Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he will be resigning at the end of February, saying he no longer feels he can adequately do the job entrusted to him.
This is the first time in 600 years that a pope has stepped down. At 85 years old, Benedict has slowed down significantly in recent years. But the Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted this decision.
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"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," Benedict explained in a statement Monday.
Benedict became pope in 2005 following the death of Pope John Paul II. He was 78 years old at the time and had been planning to retire as the Vatican's chief orthodoxy watchdog to spend his final years writing in his native Bavaria.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said he was shocked, but noted that the pope's declining health was clear.
"I'm told that when he was elected as successor to Saint Peter in 2005 he shrugged and said to his brother cardinals, 'Boy I sure don't have the strength and the durability that John Paul had.' So he's been aware of his frailty," Dolan said.
Benedict's time as the leader of the Catholic Church has included a series of scandals and controversies. In 2008, he addressed the sex abuse crisis within the Catholic Church, meeting privately with victims of pedophile priests.
He also took strong positions, openly condemning gay marriage and opposing both the ordination of women and marriage for priests. Supporters viewed him as a steadfast leader and praised him for warning against the subtle influence of secularism.
All cardinals under the age of 80 will now gather to vote in the conclave, a secret meeting held in the Sistine Chapel where ballots are cast to elect a new pope. Arguments for a pope from the third world are expected, given that half of all Catholics now live in the global south.
A spokesperson for the Vatican said that decision is expected by the end of March.