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Pope Benedict XVI Stepping Down Feb. 28

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VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign 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 on Monday morning.

He emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope -- the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide -- requires "both strength of mind and body."

He released the following statement:

"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," he told the cardinals. "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 recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.

Benedict called his choice "a decision of great importance for the life of the church."

His 89-year-old brother, Georg Ratzinger, said doctors had recently advised the pope not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips.

"His age is weighing on him," Ratzinger told the DPA news agency. "At this age, my brother wants more rest."

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 move sets the stage for the Vatican to hold a conclave to elect a new pope by mid-March, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed.

There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner -- the same situation when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.

John Paul named him leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981 and he took up his post a year later. Following John Paul's death in 2005, he was elected pope April 19 in one of the fastest conclaves in history, just about 24 hours after the voting began.

All cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave, the secret meeting held in the Sistine Chapel where cardinals cast ballots to elect a new pope. As per tradition, the ballots are burned after each voting round; black smoke that snakes out of the chimney means no pope has been chosen, while white smoke means a pope has been elected.

There are currently 118 cardinals under age 80 and thus eligible to vote, 67 of whom were appointed by Benedict. However, four of them will turn 80 before the end of March. Depending on the date of the conclave, they may or may not be allowed to vote.

In the last year of his life, John Paul was forced to curtail his travels because of old age and illness, including trembling hands and slurred speech, an inability to walk or hold his head up, and other symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

Around the world, Roman Catholics are expressing disbelief and grief over the resignation of Pope Benedict, the first papal resignation in six centuries.

Some are seeing it as a sign of crisis in the Church.

Others see it as a dramatic act of humility by a pope who found he could no longer handle his duties. Father Luis Rivero of the Archdiocese of Miami says, "There are times that only we know that we have to let go."

And many are expressing hope that a more energetic and charismatic new pope will lead the church into a new era. A parishioner outside the cathedral in the Cuban capital of Havana said, "The church must bring itself up to date with the modern world."

There are also renewed calls for a pope from the developing world. The number of believers is growing in Africa, and half the world's Catholics live in Latin America. The bishop of Fatima in Portugal, Antonio Marto, says there's a "freshness" and an "enthusiasm about living the faith" among Catholics in Africa and Latin America.

In Nigeria -- the nation with the biggest Christian population in Africa -- there are some 20 million practicing Catholics. One man there says there's already a black American president -- and now, he says, he'd like to see a black pope.

Statement by the President on His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

On behalf of Americans everywhere, Michelle and I wish to extend our appreciation and prayers to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Michelle and I warmly remember our meeting with the Holy Father in 2009, and I have appreciated our work together over these last four years.   The Church plays a critical role in the United States and the world, and I wish the best to those who will soon gather to choose His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI's successor.

Meanwhile, bookmakers have been quick to offer odds on candidates to replace Pope Benedict XVI, with cardinals from Ghana, Nigeria and Canada among the early favorites.

Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson, Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria 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 favorite Monday, followed by Ouellet at 7/2 and Arinze at 4/1. Ladbrokes also had Turkson as favorite, followed by Arinze and Ouellet.

Ireland's Paddy Power also offered short odds on the three, as well as long odds on unlikely candidates -- including U2 singer Bono at 1,000/1. It also offered 1,000/1 odds on Father Dougal Maguire, the simpleminded fictional priest from 1990s U.K. sitcom "Father Ted." (AP)

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