VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he will step down Feb. 28, the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.
The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals Monday morning.
He said that because of his advanced age and diminishing strength, he didn't feel he could carry on the job.
"Pope Benedict's announcement today has shocked and surprised everyone," said Archbishop Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales in a statement Monday morning.
"Yet, on reflection, I am sure that many will recognize it to be a decision of great courage and characteristic clarity of mind and action," Nichols continued. "I salute his courage and his decision."
Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski helped break the news Monday morning on msnbc, and Scarborough said Benedict was stepping down in a way "...that a lot of pope's don't step down" and that Benedict was never really given the chance to emerge from the shadows of Pope John Paul II, who served as pope from 1978 to 2005.
TIME's Mark Halperin wondered if the Catholic Church would consider a possible pope from another region of the world, given that both Pope John Paul II and Benedict were from Europe.
Mika Brzezinski stated her belief that following Pope John Paul II it must be difficult to "...because he was almost a rock star in the eyes of young people around the world" and she wondered what may be behind Benedict's resignation.
Father Edward Beck, host of The Sunday Mass, also joined Morning Joe on Monday to say he was “extremely surprised” by Benedict’s announcement.
“…it’s unprecedented in modern times anyway…Benedict certainly seemed as agile if not more so than John Paul II, so I think everyone would have thought that he would stay pope until his death. But this is really a very interesting development because it is so unexpected based on what we’ve seen in our times.”
The London Daily Telegraph also points to the pope's full statement:
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonisations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. 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 with 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 Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.
From the Vatican, 10 February 2013
BENEDICTUS PP XVI