On Monday, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI will step down on Feb. 28, a very rare occurrence in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. "The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415," says Paul Owen at Britain's The Guardian. And the news of Pope Benedict's departure "seems to have come as a complete surprise to everyone," including prelates in the church. According to The Guardian's Lizzy Davies, the Catholic Church will be without a pope from Feb. 28 until the cardinals elect a replacement. Here's the Pope's statement, in full:

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.
From the Vatican, 10 February 2013


The big question for Vatican watchers if there's anything else behind this surprise resignation — and, of course, who's going to be the next pope?

Of course, the oddsmakers have already started the betting. Early favorites, from Irish site Paddy Power: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, currently Prefect of the congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Other favorites include Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, reportedly a friend of U2's Bono, and Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan.

As the news breaks around the world, many leaders are starting to weigh in. Here's the office of Angela Merkel, the chancellor of the pope's home country, Germany: "The federal government has the greatest possible respect for the Holy Father, for his accomplishments, for his life-long work for the Catholic Church." Here's Australia's former prime minister:

And of course, the news comes right on the heels of a big escalation of the child sex abuse scandal in the Los Angeles archdiocese, where the former archbishop, Cardinal Roger Mahony, was stripped of his administrative duties after court documents showed he covered up cases of sex abuse and nearly depleted the archdiocese's cemetery-upkeep fund in payments to victims. The continuing fallout from decades of child sex abuse will also be a part of Pope Benedict's complicated legacy.

So, what else has caused popes to step aside instead of dying in office? Alex Fenton-Thomas writes, via The Guardian:

The best known example involved Pope Celestine V in 1294. After only five months as the Bishop of Rome, he issued a solemn decree declaring it possible that a pope can resign and then promptly did so. He then lived the rest of his days as a hermit and was later canonised. His papal decree ended any debate over whether a pope can justify standing down during his lifetime. Before Celestine, the only other two pontiffs to resign were the current Pope's namesake Benedict IX in 1045 and his successor Gregory VI the year after.

The last word goes to Luke Coppen, editor of the British newspaper The Catholic Herald, who tells Britain's The Telegraph: "Pope Benedict's pontificate has been full of surprises. This is the biggest one of all."