Pope Benedict XVI will resign on Feb. 28, 2013, according to the Vatican, making him the first pontiff to step down in almost six centuries.
The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals Monday morning. (click here for full text of announcement)
"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 the ministry entrusted to me."
The German native succeeded Pope John Paul II making him the 265th pope to lead the Roman Catholic Church.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said he was as startled as the rest of the world about Pope Benedict XVI's announcement that he will resign later this month due to failing health.
Dolan said he feels a special bond with the pope because he was the one that appointed him archbishop of New York.
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.
As cardinal, Dolan would be part of the College of Cardinals electing a new pope.
In replying to questions at a news conference on Monday, he said it would be "highly improbable" for him to be considered for the papacy.
FoxNews.com reported that the likely successor will continue Benedict's conservative vision with a younger, more energetic outlook and perhaps hail from Africa, Asia or Latin America, according to religious experts.
Several papal contenders wait in the wings, but no obvious front-runner.
"It's historical. It's a highly generous decision. He said 'I want to give the church my best.' The pope never stops being a father of the family," said Msgr. Jim Lisante of Our Lady of Lourdes in Massapequa, L.I. "They'll assess who do we have. Most Catholics no longer live in Europe. Will they take the brave step to maybe look to Central or South America? We'll see the next couple of weeks will be very interesting."
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.
World leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, weighed in on the news.
"On behalf of Americans everywhere, Michelle and I wish to extend our appreciation and prayers to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI," Obama said in a statement. "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."