Pope Benedict XVI surprisingly announced on Monday that he will resign from the Holy See at the end of the month.

Joseph Ratzinger, as he was known before his election to the holy position, has said that he is retiring due to health reasons, and that he lacks the "strength of mind and body" to continue with his duties.

“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. In order to govern the bark (ship) of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary – strengths which in the last few months, have deteriorated in me."

In a reading, the 85 year old, who has been Pope for the past eight years, spoke about the state of the Christian church.

"Today we can no longer be Christians as a simple consequence of the fact that we live in a society that has Christian roots," he said. "Even those born to a Christian family and formed in the faith must, each and every day, renew the choice to be a Christian, to give God first place, before the temptations continuously suggested by a secularised culture, before the criticism of many of our contemporaries."

Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, has said that Conclave, the voting and election of a new Pope, should begin on March 15, "if all goes well".