LONDON — Recognizing what he described as his failing strength of "mind and body," Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would step down as head of the Catholic church, the first pontiff to give up his duties since 1415.
"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," Benedict said in a statement.
Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said Benedict will move to the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo following his abdication on Feb. 28, then return to Rome to live in a monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican for a period of prayer and reflection.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said he and first lady Michelle Obama, "on behalf of Americans everywhere," extend their "appreciation and prayers" to Benedict.
"Michelle and I warmly remember our meeting with the Holy Father in 2009, and I have appreciated our work together over these last four years," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "The Church plays a critical role in the United States and the world, and I wish the best to those who will soon gather to choose His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI's successor."
The choice by the 85-year-old pontiff, born in Germany as Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger and ordained a priest in the aftermath of World War II, shocked lay Catholics and high-ranking clergy, including the pope's closest aides.
"It came as an enormous surprise," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, who last saw Benedict in Rome in October. "He presided at meeting after meeting after meeting," Wuerl said. "There was no doubt that he was in full possession of his faculties."
Benedict's decision to step down "says to me he is a very humble and honest person," Wuerl added. "His love for the church is such that he has concluded it would be better not to try to lead this huge flock without the full strength of all of his energies."
Catholics attending 7 a.m. Mass at St. Matthews Cathedral in downtown Washington agreed. "If he's feeling weak or frail, well, [retiring] is such a loving and caring decision on his part," said Tara Shaughnessy, 23, of the District.
During his eight-year tenure, Benedict has tried to guide the church through troubling sexual abuse and financial scandals while seeking to reinforce conservative doctrine among the global ranks of more than 1 billion faithful.
Liberal Catholics bemoaned his promotion of conservative bishops who believe the church will hold together best if its teachings are communicated as eternal and unchanging. They bristled at a church crackdown on the largest group of U.S. nuns after the nuns wrote and lectured about homosexuality and contraception.
Traditional Catholics, however, have celebrated Benedict's focus on orthodoxy.
"If you don't sell full-throttle Catholicism, people are not going to buy it. Everyone knows the whole package is more compelling and interesting than some sort of Catholic hors d'oeuvres that leave you hungry," said George Weigel, who has written multiple books on the church and the pope.
Quiet and soft-spoken, especially in comparison to his gregarious predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Benedict nevertheless maintained a vigorous travel and speaking schedule, visiting Lebanon as recently as September and, in December, launching the first ever papal Twitter account. He was 78 when he was elected pope in 2005, the oldest person chosen to head the church since the 18th century.
The conclave of cardinals that will choose the next pope is expected to convene in mid-March. Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said "we should have a new pope for Easter," which this year falls on March 31. Benedict will be the first former pope in nearly six centuries to witness the election of his successor, but he does not plan to participate in the selection, Lombardi said.
Analysts immediately began predicting a turbulent debate between reformers and conservatives. At a time when the church is declining in its former stronghold of Europe but gaining strength in Africa, Asia and Latin America, pressure is growing on the College of Cardinals — the global princes of the church — to break with tradition by electing a non-European as pope
Benedict made his extraordinary announcement in Latin, to a private gathering of cardinals inside Vatican City. "I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," Benedict said. "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."
Benedict encouraged a revival of the Latin Mass and promoted a range of traditionalists into the Vatican hierarchy, hoping to win back conservative Catholics opposed to the church reforms spelled out by the Second Vatican Council of 1962. He attempted to recruit new members, including Anglicans disenchanted with liberal views on female as well as openly gay clergy in their own denomination. His unprecedented move to allow Anglicans to become Catholic but remain in their own communities drew some 1,600 lay people and 30 priests in North America alone. Benedict has designated 2013 the "year of faith," or evangelization, encouraging Catholics who have spent a half-century focusing on their own disputes to return to being missionaries.
Benedict is seen as the most intellectual pontiff in generations , but he was never quite able to exude the charisma that made Pope John Paul II a beloved figure among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. "He had a hard act to follow in John Paul, who was bigger than life. Benedict suffered by comparison because he was much more shy, he wasn't an actor, he preferred to write books and issue encyclicals rather than travel," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Catholic writer and former editor of "America," a Catholic magazine.
Reese said Benedict would be remembered as the pope who "cleaned up sex abuse" because he demanded that bishops around the world institute more extensive preventative procedures, the way the U.S. church has. However, only a minuscule number of clergy worldwide have been held accountable for sexual abuse and removed from their positions, which Reese acknowledged "has been a problem. . . . However, he did a lot more than Pope John Paul did."
At various times, Benedict made statements — some say gaffes — that included what critics called slights against Protestants, Muslims and Jews.
"He will be remembered as a conservative pope," said John Pollard, an expert on the modern papacy at Cambridge University. "People will remember his conservatism, moral high ground over same-sex marriage, women priests and contraception, his involvement in dealing with the pedophile scandals."
Benedict departs amid a sense of crisis in a Vatican still reeling from a litany of scandals and at a time when questions of reform are dividing Roman Catholics worldwide.
The most recent problems facing the church involve a bevy of documents leaked by the pope's personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, to Italian journalists and alleging corruption and heated disputes within the marbled Vatican walls.
The church has also faced criticism over efforts to comply with international rules governing money laundering at the institution's internal bank. Earlier this year, the Vatican's financial troubles escalated to the point where international banks temporarily suspended credit card links at the Sistine Chapel, forcing tourists to use cash.
After scores of new pedophilia accusations, and cover-up allegations, surfaced in Europe in 2010, the spotlight focused on Benedict's own management of a case involving a German priest and sex offender while he was bishop of Munich in 1980. Despite promises to the victim's family that the priest would not work with children again, the priest was allowed to return to the ministry, after which he molested more children.
Accusations also surfaced that a Vatican office Benedict had headed in the 1990s failed to defrock an American priest who allegedly molested 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin.
Benedict's defenders hailed actions he took to address the scandals, including a rare official apology to Catholics in Ireland for widespread clergy sexual abuse there.
The pope's decision to step aside to make way for a new and almost surely younger pope was seen Monday as another manifestation of his fierce generosity and goodwill.
"As a Christian and as a Catholic, one can't help but be moved and touched by this," German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said at a news conference in Berlin, according to Reuters. "He has left a very personal signature as a thinker at the head of the church, and also as a shepherd."
Boorstein reported from Washington. Washington Post staff writers James Arkin, Maggie Fazeli Fard and Debbi Wilgoren in Washington and Eliza Mackintosh in London contributed to this report.