Mass confusion as the Pope resigns

By Ian Dunt

British Catholics were in a state of confusion and amazement today after the Vatican confirmed the Pope was resigning due to health reasons.

Pope Benedict, who made the announcement in Latin, will step down on February 28th.

The Vatican said the period of vacant Papacy will be "as brief as possible".

Minutes after the announcement, the Vatican website crashed under the weight of traffic.

He is the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415, who was trying to end the Western Schism, in which three people claimed the Papal throne.

Before that the last Pope to resign was Celestine V in 1294.

There has been speculation about the 85-year-old's health since last year, when he often appeared exhausted and sullen.

He admitted at a Morning Mass in April to being on "the final leg of the path of my life", but speculation was dampened by the fact very few observers were even aware Popes could resign.

Pope Benedict has been a controversial figure as Pope. The German, who was involved in the Hitler Youth as a child, took a hardline position on moral issues such as contraception and was unable to move on from the deadly reputational damage of the child sex scandals hitting the Catholic Church.

He was granted the rare honour of addressing both house of parliament during an official visit in 2010, although some were offended by his warning that the UK was falling victim to "atheist extremism".