Pope Benedict XVI, on Saturday at the Vatican.For the first time in nearly 600 years, a pope is resigning from his post as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday morning that he is stepping down effective Feb. 28.

From Rome, NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli tells the NPR Newscast that the pope is citing his advanced age (85) and diminishing strength. Sylvia says “he had been thinking about this for a long time” and appears to have “decided to do it for the good of the church.”

According to The Associated Press, the pope:

“Announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals Monday morning.

” ‘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.’ ”

The AP adds that “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 has led the church since 2005. He succeeded Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican is expected to hold a conclave to elect a new pope by mid-March.

We’ll have more on this story as the day continues.

Update at 7:23 a.m. ET. The Pope’s Statement:

“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.”

Update at 7:15 a.m. ET. Some History On Papal Resignations.

National Catholic Reporter writes that:

“The number popes who may have resigned has been estimated as high as 10, but the historical evidence is limited. Most recently, during the Council of Constance in the 15th century, Gregory XII resigned to bring about the end of the Western Schism and a new pope was elected in 1417. Pope Celestine V’s resignation in 1294 is the most famous because Dante placed him in hell for it.

“Most modern popes have felt that resignation is unacceptable. As Paul VI said, paternity cannot be resigned.”

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