VATICAN CITY (NEWS1130) – Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign Feb. 28 — the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.

The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals on Monday morning.

He emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope — the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide — requires “both strength of mind and body.”

“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,” he told the cardinals. “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by 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 St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary — strengths which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

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

Benedict called his choice “a decision of great importance for the life of the church.”

The move sets the stage for the Vatican to hold a conclave to elect a new pope by mid-March, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope doesn’t have to be observed.

Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet — the former Archbishop of Quebec — is being looked at according to Andrew Davis who covers the Vatican for Bloomberg News.

But Davis says, with the number of Roman Catholics rising in the developing world, it’s more likely the next pontiff will come from Latin America or Africa.

“Even in the college of Cardinals, they’re the ones who chose the Pope, are carrying more and more weight than they ever have in the past. I think there is going to be a lot of pressure to reach beyond the US, and certainly beyond Italy, and beyond Europe.

Davis believes Benedict was considered an interim pope when he was selected in 2005, and paved the way for a pontiff from the developing world.