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ROME — Citing advanced years and infirmity, Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stunned the Roman Catholic world Monday by saying that he would resign Feb. 28, less than eight years after he took office, the first pope to do so in six centuries.

A profoundly conservative figure whose papacy was overshadowed by clerical abuse scandals, the pope, 85, was elected by fellow cardinals in 2005 after the death of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

After examining his conscience “before God,” he said Monday, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of his position as head of the world’s Roman Catholics.

Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the pope would continue to carry out his papal duties until Feb. 28 and that a successor could probably be elected by Easter which falls this year on March 31. But, he added, that date was “not an announcement, it’s a hypothesis.”

While there had been questions about the pope’s health and infirmity, the timing of his announcement — even by the Vatican’s official account — sent shock waves across the globe, even though he had in the past endorsed the notion that an incapacitated pope could resign.

“The pope took us by surprise,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, who explained that many cardinals were in Rome on Monday for a ceremony at the Vatican and heard the pope’s address. Italy’s outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti said he was “very shaken by the unexpected news.”

The announcement plunged the Roman Catholic world into frenzied speculation about his likely successor and seemed likely to inspire many contrasting evaluations of a papacy that was seen as both conservative and contentious.

The pope made his initial announcement in Latin but his statement was translated into seven languages — Italian, French, English, German, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish.

“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, 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,” the pope 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 St. Peter.”

Elected April 19, 2005, Pope Benedict said his papacy would end on Feb. 28. At a news conference, the Vatican spokesman said the pope did not express strong emotion as he made his announcement but spoke with “great dignity, great concentration and great understanding of the significance of the moment.”