msnbc's Chris Jansing is headed to The Vatican to cover the latest on Pope Benedict's abdication. The 85-year-old leader of the Catholic Church will step aside on February 28th.
In a statement, the Pope said, "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 pope's declining health has been an issue. He goes to and from the altar in St. Peter's basilica on a moving platform, so he doesn't have to walk down the long aisle and sometime he uses a cane. His brother says doctors recently told the pope not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips.
George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II and NBC News Vatican Analyst said, "The Pope is leaving behind a church in the United States that is in the strongest shape of any church in the developed world, far stronger than in Western Europe, stronger than in Latin America or Canada. Two hundred and fifty thousand people came into the Catholic Church last Easter."
Weigel says there are other signs of vitality of the Catholic Church in the United States. He says seminaries in Chicago and Maryland are more full than they've been in forty years.
What about the possibility for a new Pope from America?
The first name that comes up is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop from New York. "It's a long-shot," said Weigel, "But we might have a North American Pope—I think Cardinal Ouellet from Canada will get a very serious look from the College of Cardinals. I think it's a wide open field."
Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo was with the Pope ten days ago. Figueiredo was the personal assistant to Pope John Paul II and is the Director of the Institute of Continuing Theological Education at the Pontifical North American College.
"He did look frail to myself and the other priests who were with me," he said.
The papal conclave "will be set in motion right away" according to Figueiredo. "Already plans are being made for the various meetings," he said.
A Vatican spokesman said they hope to have a new Pope by Easter, that's March 31st.