He made this surprise announcement at a meeting of cardinals in the Vatican Monday. The 85-year pontiff served as head of the Roman Catholic Church for seven years. He said, “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith… both strength of mind and body are necessary, strengths which in the last few months have deteriorated and I have to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill his ministry due to advanced age.”  The church leaders are set to hold a conclave for electing a new pope before the end of March.

Benedict is the first pontiff to resign in 600 years. The last was Pope Gregory XII who stepped down in 1415 to end a schism among competing papal claimants.