Pope Benedict XVI is resigning at the end of this month due to his "advanced age," the Vatican said Monday.

The pope, who turns 86 in two months and became pontiff on April 19, 2005, said in his resignation letter that he would continue to lead the Roman Catholic Church until 8:00 p.m. (1900 GMT) on Feb. 28.

The announcement "has caught us all by surprise," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

The pope announced his decision to resign Monday to a meeting of cardinals, Lombardi said.

Papal resignations are covered in Canon Law, the Vatican spokesman said, adding that the pope was in full control of his mental faculties.

The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415.

The conclave of cardinals to elect Benedicto XVI's successor is expected to take place in March, Lombardi said.

The German-born Benedict XVI is the 265th pontiff of the Catholic Church, bishop of Rome and seventh head of state of the Vatican state. EFE