The Vatican announced Monday that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning on February 28.

Pope Benedict is the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years.

The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals this morning. Benedict says he's stepping down because of his advanced age and diminishing strength.

The pope's resignation sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed.

There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner as was the case when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.