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."