LONDON - Citing failing strength of "mind and body," Pope Benedict XVI stunned his closest aides and more than 1 billion Catholics by resigning on Monday, becoming the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years and ending the tenure of a formidable theologian who preached a gospel of conservative faith to a fast-changing world.
Keeping with his reputation as a traditionalist, Pope Benedict delivered his resignation - effective Feb. 28 - in Latin, to a private church body in Vatican City. "I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," he said. "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."
The decision by the 85-year-old German pontiff sets up a pivotal leadership contest in the marbled halls of the Vatican that is coming sooner than observers expected. Although questions about the pope's health have long swirled - he was occasionally filmed nodding off during mass - he seemed committed to continuing a papacy that has divided Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
But the pope's brother, Georg Ratzinger, also a priest, said the pontiff had informed him of his decision "months ago."
"He has gotten tired faster and faster and walking has become hard for him," Ratzinger said, adding that his brother - who was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger and ordained a priest in the aftermath of World War II - did "the best he possibly could have done" in his role.
The conclave to choose the next pope was expected to convene in mid-March, with a new pope in place in time to preside over Easter Mass at St. Peter Cathedral.
The pontiff departs amid a sense of crisis in the Vatican. The institution's most recent problems involve a bevy of documents leaked by the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, to Italian journalists alleging corruption and heated disputes within the Vatican walls. The church also has faced criticism for its internal bank's failures to comply with international rules governing money-laundering. The Vatican's financial troubles escalated this year to the point where international banks temporarily suspended credit-card links at the Sistine Chapel, forcing tourists to use cash.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of his papacy has emerged in the spread of clerical sex abuse scandals from the United States into other places including Ireland and Germany, where the pope was born and served as archbishop. Critics have urged that more bishops be held accountable, and some raised questions about Benedict's management of a case involving a German priest and sex offender while he was bishop of Munich in 1980.
Speaking in Rome on Monday, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that the pope took his decision to resign "aware of the great problems the church faces today," adding that the decision showed "great courage and determination." He insisted, however, that the pope's decision was personal, and that he had not resigned because of "difficulties in the papacy." Benedict, Lombardi said, will not take part in the conclave to elect a new pope, adding that he is expected to retire to a monastery of cloistered nuns on the Vatican grounds.
Benedict had emerged as a crusader and a lighting rod since the moment white smoke over the Sistine Chapel heralded his arrival in 2005. He encouraged a revival of the Latin Mass and promoted traditionalists in the Vatican hierarchy, determined to amplify the church's message of morality and the role of Roman Catholicism as the one true faith. He sought to win back conservative Catholics opposed to the Second Vatican Council of 1962, and attempted to recruit new members, including Anglicans disenchanted with liberal views on female as well as openly gay clergy in their denomination. In 2006, he ignited street protests in the Islamic world after repeating a negative quote about the prophet Muhammad.