THE POPE has resigned due to "advanced age" in a move which has shocked Catholics across the world. 

Pope Benedict XVI is expected to stand down on February 28, leaving the office vacant until at least the end of March.

The 85-year-old pontiff has been in office for the last eight years.

The position will remain vacant until a successor is elected.

He is the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years and the decision sets the stage for a conclave to alect a new Pope before the end of March.

The announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals this morning.

The last Pope to step down was Pope Gregory XII who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants. 

Local Catholics were shocked by the Pope's decision.

Sean Devlin, principal at Blessed Edward Oldcorne Catholic High School in Worcester, only found out about the decision at around noon and when he was told there was some major news he initially it was to do with an Ofsted report.

He said: "It's a major, major surprise. The last time this happened was 600 years ago. It's dramatic."

However Mr Devlin said the Pope would have examined his conscience carefully before arriving at the decision.

He said: "He would have prayed and prayed over this."

But Mr Devlin said Pope Benedict was the same age as the last Pope when he died.

He added: "I would say it is a decision he had made, guided by the Holy Spirit.

"It is God working in his mysterious ways which we don't always understand.

"The Holy Spirit is saying to the Pope 'it is time for a new person to carry on and lead the Catholic Church across the world'."

Father Paul Whieldon, priest at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, in St John's, Worcester, said: "It's a great shock.

"It was very courageous to take that step. I'm sure he's got the best interests of the Church at heart.

"This is charateristic of the man. He has always shown great humility."

Father Brian McGinley, parish priest of St George's Catholic Church in Sansome Place, Worcester, like Father Whieldon saw the Pope at the open-air mass at Cofton Park in Birmingham in September 2010.

He said he noticed at the time what "an engaging personality" he was, more reserved than the previous Pope, John Paul II, but with "an incredibly sharp mind" who was able to express himself and the Christian message very clearly.

He said: "I think, looking at the tweets, there's a mixture of shock and in one sense admiration for the man for recognising, for such an incredible responsibility, he's getting too old and frail and he's very aware of that.

"His main concern is for the Church, not for himself. It says something for the stature of the man to recognise that a job like this, a role like this, is so demanding in so many different ways that it does need someone younger.

"I do admire him for that decision. At the end of the day we trust that God will appoint the one that he wants. We do believe the Lord chooses a man for this job and we get the Pope that necessary at a particular time in history."

Father McGinley who spoke at the ceremony at Cofton Park said Pope Benedict was someone who had "pleasantly surprised many people" who had in their minds that he was a Germanic disciplinarian.

He believes the Pope's decision to stand down will set a precedent for future popes just as John Paul II did for the election of non-Italian popes.

The Bishop of Worcester, the Right Rev Dr John Inge, said: "This is the first time that a pope has resigned since 1415 and so is unprecedented in modern times.

"Our prayers are with the Pope following his momentous decision as we give thanks for his witness and ministry.

"We also pray for those who will be responsible for electing his successor and Roman Catholics across the world who may have been disturbed and unsettled by this development."

What the Pope said in a statement released by the Vatican:

Dear Brothers, I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church.

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.

I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with 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 Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both 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.

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.

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.

With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer."

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