Pope Benedict XVI has made the shock announcement that he will resign as the head of the Roman Catholic Church due to his "advanced age."
The Vatican confirmed the 85-year-old Pontiff would leave his role at 7pm GMT on February 28 after nearly eight years in office.
ITV News Europe Editor James Mates reports from the Vatican:
He is the first Pope to resign in nearly 600 years and it is hoped that a conclave will choose his successor before the start of Holy Week on March 24.
During a meeting of Vatican cardinals this morning, the Pope said he could no longer continue in the role because of his age and diminishing strength.
– Pope Benedict XVI
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 by 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 St Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary - strengths which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said they had "no warning" of the Pope's decision but added that his "vigour had diminished" in the past few months.
Lombardi said the resignation was down to his age and not a specific illness.
He added that the Pontiff's aides were left "incredulous" by his decision to step down and confirmed that Pope Benedict would not be involved in the process to elect his successor.
Pope Benedict XV1 factfile:
- Pope Benedict XVI was born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927.
- He is the 265th Pope and succeeded John Paul II.
- Ratzinger was 78 when he was elected to become Pope in April 2005.
- He was the eighth German to become Pope.
- Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on February 11, 2013, the first Pontiff to do so since Pope Gregory XII in 1415.
The Pope's brother Georg Ratzinger said he had known of the resignation plans "for months", according to German magazine Der Spiegel.
Ratzinger added that his brother wanted "more quiet" in his old age and his decision was part of a "natural process."
– Georg Ratzinger
His age is weighing on him. At this age my brother wants more rest.
– David Cameron
I send my best wishes to Pope Benedict following his announcement today. He has worked tirelessly to strengthen Britain's relations with the Holy See.
His visit to Britain in 2010 is remembered with great respect and affection. He will be missed as a spiritual leader to millions.
The Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti tweeted that he was "very shocked by the unexpected news."
The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu said the "Christian world would miss" Pope Benedict and Cardinal Keith O'Brien said he was "shocked and saddened" by his resignation.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the resignation left him with a "heavy heart but complete understanding."
ITV News correspondent Geraint Vincent spoke to the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols about Pope Benedict's legacy and the future direction of the Catholic Church:
Attention will now turn to who will replace Pope Benedict, with bookmakers Paddy Power making Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze the favourite.
If Cardinal Arinze is elected by a conclave he will become the first black pontiff.
Odds on next Pope:
- 15/8 Cardinal Arinze.
- 9/4 Cardinal Turkson.
- 5/1 Cardinal Ouellet.
- 7/1 Archbishop Scola.
- 1000/1 Bono.
Pope Benedict will honour his public engagements and official commitments until his resignation.
After stepping down, the Pope will go to the Papal's summer residence before moving to a new residence in the Vatican.