Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict said in a historic announcement he no longer had the mental and physical strength to run the Roman Catholic Church and would become the first pontiff in more than 700 years to resign, leaving his inner circle "incredulous".
Church officials tried to relay a climate of calm confidence in the running of a 2,000-year-old institution but the decision could lead to one of the most uncertain and unstable periods in centuries for a Church besieged by scandal and defections.
The Church has been rocked during Benedict's nearly eight-year papacy by child sexual abuse crises and Muslim anger after the pope compared Islam to violence. Jews were upset over rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier and there was scandal over the leaking of the pope's private papers by his personal butler, reports Reuters.
In the announcement read to cardinals in Latin, the German-born pope, 85, said: "Well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of St Peter ...
"As from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours (2 p.m. ET) the See of Rome, the See of St. Peter will be vacant and a conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is."
The pope, known for his conservative doctrine, did not intend to influence the decision of the cardinals who will enter a secret conclave to elect a successor, Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi Federico said.
Benedict stepped up the Church's opposition to gay marriage, underscored the Church's resistance to a female priesthood and to embryonic stem cell research.
A new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics could be elected as soon as Palm Sunday, on March 24 and be ready to take over by Easter a week later, he said.
Lombardi said the pope did not fear a possible "schism" but several popes in the past, including Benedict's predecessor John Paul, refrained from stepping down precisely because of the confusion and division that could be caused by having an "ex-pope" and a reigning pope living at the same time.
This could create a particularly difficult problem if the next pope is a progressive who influences such teachings as the ban on women priests and artificial birth control and its insistence on a celibate priesthood.
"This is disconcerting, he is leaving his flock," said Alessandra Mussolini, a parliamentarian who is granddaughter of Italy's wartime dictator.
"The pope is not any man. He is the vicar of Christ. He should stay on to the end, go ahead and bear his cross to the end. This is a huge sign of world destabilization that will weaken the Church."
The pope's elder brother Georg Ratzinger, a frail 89-year-old priest who shares the pope's passion for music, told reporters in the Bavarian town of Regensburg where he once conducted the cathedral choir that he had been "very surprised" to learn of his brother's resignation.
"He alone can evaluate his physical and emotional strength," said Ratzinger.