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VATICAN CITY -- Declaring he lacks the strength to do his job, Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday he will resign Feb. 28 -- becoming the first pontiff to step down in 600 years. His decision sets the stage for a mid-March conclave to elect a new leader for a Catholic Church in deep turmoil.
The 85-year-old Pope dropped the bombshell in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprising even his closest collaborators even though he had made clear previously he would step down if he became too old or infirm to carry on.
Benedict called his choice "a decision of great importance for the life of the church."
Indeed, the move allows the Vatican to hold a conclave before Easter to elect a new pope, since the traditional nine days of mourning that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed.
It will also allow Benedict to hold great sway over the choice of his successor, though he will not vote. He has already hand-picked the bulk of the College of Cardinals -- the princes of the church who will elect the next pope -- to guarantee his conservative legacy and ensure an orthodox future for the church.
"Without doubt, this is a historic moment," said Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a protege and former theology student of Benedict's who himself is considered a papal contender. "Right now, 1.2 billion Catholics the world over are holding their breath."
Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris, called the decision a "liberating act for the future," saying popes from now on will no longer feel compelled to stay on until their death.
"One could say that in a certain manner, Pope Benedict XVI broke a taboo," he told reporters in Paris.
The Vatican stressed no specific medical condition prompted Benedict's decision, that he remained fully lucid and took his decision independently.
"Any interference or intervention is alien to his style," Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
It has been obvious to all the Pope has slowed down significantly in recent years, cutting back his foreign travel and limiting his audiences. He now goes to and from the altar in St. Peter's Basilica on a moving platform to spare him the long walk down the aisle. Occasionally, he uses a cane.
His 89-year-old brother, Georg Ratzinger, said doctors had recently advised the Pope not to take any more transatlantic trips.
"His age is weighing on him," Ratzinger told the dpa news agency. "At this age, my brother wants more rest."
Benedict emphasized carrying out the duties of being Pope requires "both strength of mind and body."
"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 the demands of being the Pope, he told the cardinals.
"In order to govern the bark (ship) of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary -- strengths which in the last few months have deteriorated in me," he said.
Popes are allowed to resign, but church law says the decision must be "freely made and properly manifested." Still, only a handful have done it.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, a dispute among competing papal claimants. The most famous resignation was Pope Celestine V in 1294; Dante placed him in hell for it.
There are good reasons why others haven't followed suit, primarily because of the fear of a schism with two living popes.
Lombardi sought to rule out such a scenario, saying church law makes clear a resigning pope no longer has the right to govern the church.
"Therefore there is no risk of a conflict," he told reporters.
When Benedict was elected in 2005 at age 78, he was the oldest pope chosen in nearly 300 years. At the time, he had already been planning to retire as the Vatican's chief orthodoxy watchdog to spend his final years writing in the "peace and quiet" of his native Bavaria.
-- The Associated Press
WHO WILL BE THE NEXT POPE? Vatican watchers make their picks
Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada
OUELLET, the Canadian-born former Archbishop of Quebec, now heads the powerful Congregation of Bishops, a "great spot for making friends and influencing people," by choosing the global leadership of the church, says National Catholic Reporter Vatican specialist John Allen.
He describes Ouellet, 68, as a veteran in dealing with the secularized West, someone smart and intellectual with "a cosmopolitan resumé," says Allen. Some say Ouellet would be looked at as an innovative choice, breathing new life into the Vatican.
Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan
SCOLA leads church historian Matthew Bunson's list as "an Italian with the intellectual chops for the job" who would bring Benedict's enthusiasm for "recapturing Catholic excitement in Europe."
Benedict moved the 70-year-old from another high-profile post, Venice, in 2011, giving this Vatican insider a perch at Europe's largest diocese. Milan and Venice together have produced five popes in the last 100 years. Scola is also a top scholar on Islam and Christian-Muslim dialog.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, Archbishop of Genoa
BAGNASCO, a former professor of metaphysics and contemporary atheism, made headlines last year for a ripping attack on then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other Italian leaders as unethical role models. He's "fairly savvy about both secular politics and the media," writes Allen.
Bunson calls Bagnasco, 69, "an intellectual heavyweight" who speaks multiple languages and takes strong stands on doctrine.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, elevated to cardinal in 2010
RAVASI, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, is so smart, says Allen, "if you were picking a quiz-bowl team in the College of Cardinals, most people would start with Ravasi."
Allen calls Ravasi, 69, "a master communicator who could take the world by storm. He can ignite rich, solid commitment to Catholic orthodoxy without ever coming off as a scold."
The Italian-born biblical scholar has the advantage of being based in Rome.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina
SANDRI, 70, the head of the Vatican's office for the Eastern Catholics and a longtime Vatican diplomat, would be the first pope from South America, the centre of global Catholicism today, if he were chosen.
"He's prayerful, well-liked around the world and very much aware, because of his diplomatic experience, of the global dimensions of the church," says Bunson.
Sandri was the person who read the announcement Pope John Paul II had died.
Who are you betting on?
BOOKMAKERS have been quick to offer odds on candidates to replace Pope Benedict XVI.
Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson and Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet lead in betting with Britain's major bookmakers. William Hill made Turkson -- one of the highest-ranking African cardinals at the Vatican -- its 3/1 favourite Monday, followed by Ouellet at 7/2.
Ireland's Paddy Power also offered long odds on unlikely candidates -- including U2 singer Bono at 1,000/1.
-- USA Today, with AP files