(Photo: Reuters/Osservatore Romano)
Pope Benedict XVI, who has served as head of the Roman Catholic Church since 2005, has announced that he will be stepping down.
In a statement released Monday morning, the 85-year-old Pontiff cited "advanced age" as the reason for his resignation, which will be effective at the end of the month.
"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," said the Pope.
"Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff."
Pope Benedict XVI is the first pope in nearly 600 years to step down from the position of Pontiff; the last was Pope Gregory XII, who did so as a means of helping to end the Great Schism when multiple clerics claimed the position.
Pope Benedict XVI was also the first Germanic Pontiff since Pope Adrian VI of the 16th century and the 265th person to serve as pope.
Born Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI was elected pope by the College of Cardinals in April of 2005, succeeding Pope John Paul II, who had died earlier that year. Ordained at age 78, Ratzinger tied the record for oldest cardinal to be elected pope with Clement XII, who was ordained in 1730.
From the onset, some social commentators expressed concern over Pope Benedict XVI being elected, given his reputation for conservative theology. Before becoming Pope, Benedict XVI headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Church organization whose chief mission is to defend the Church from heresy.
His accomplishments while Pontiff included the restoration of the traditional Latin Mass, establishing an ordinariat system so that Anglican churches could join the Catholic Church, and making a historic visit to a Roman synagogue.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement Monday commending Pope Benedict XVI for his service as pontiff. "The Holy Father brought the tender heart of a pastor, the incisive mind of a scholar and the confidence of a soul united with His God in all he did," said Dolan.
"His resignation is but another sign of his great care for the Church. We are sad that he will be resigning but grateful for his eight years of selfless leadership as successor of St. Peter."
With the announcement made, the College of Cardinals will soon meet to elect a new pope.