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Pope Benedict XVI Announces Resignation

ROME (CNN) — The spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI, surprised the world Monday by saying he will resign at the end of the month “because of advanced age.”

It’s the first time a pope has stepped down in nearly 600 years.

“Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength 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 pope said, according to the Vatican.

The news startled and shocked the Catholic world and led to frenzied speculation about who would replace him. Analysts and experts immediately began debating the merits of naming a pontiff from the developing world, where the church continues to grow, versus one from Europe, where it has deep historical roots.

Cardinals will meet to choose Benedict’s successor sometime after his official resignation on February 28, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said at a news conference.

“Before Easter, we will have the new pope,” he said.

Benedict won’t be involved in the decision, Lombardi said. But his influence will undoubtedly be felt. Benedict appointed 67 the 118 cardinals who will make the decision.

CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John Allen said that means the next pope, no matter where he is from, will likely continue in Benedict’s conservative tradition — which has seen the church take a firm line on issues such as abortion, birth control and divorce.

The pope, born Joseph Ratzinger, is likely to retire to a monastery and devote himself to a life of reflection and prayer, Lombardi said. He won’t be involved in managing the church after his resignation.

In a sign of just how rare an event this is, church officials aren’t sure what the pope will be called after he leaves the office. One possibility, Allen said, is “bishop emeritus of Rome.”