© AP
Pope Benedict XVI: the pontiff admitted: 'I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited' to the role.'
Pontiff, 85, who has arthritis, says he will step down on 28 February after nearly eight years as head of Catholic church

Pope Benedict XVI is to step down as head of the Catholic church at the end of this month, the Vatican has announced.

The move, which came without warning, will take place on 28 February and leave the papacy vacant until a successor is chosen.

The pope announced his decision in Latin on Monday morning during a meeting of cardinals. He informed them of "a decision of great importance for the life of the church".

According to a Vatican statement, Benedict, 85, said he was resigning due to his age and declining strength. "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.

"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, entrusted to me by the cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a conclave to elect the new supreme pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is."

Benedict, who became the 265th pope in 2005, has arthritis, particularly in his knees, hips and ankles. He had been due to travel to Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, in July for a youth festival, but concerns had been raised among Vatican observers about whether he was well enough.

A voluntary papal resignation is rare - certainly in recent centuries. Pope Celestine V exercised his right to abdicate in 1294.