The Catholic Church has been rocked by the shock announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at the end of February.

News agencies in Italy are reporting that the decision has been taken on health grounds.

The 85-year-old’s resignation has been confirmed by a Vatican spokesman according to Bloomberg and the ANSA news agency in Rome.

Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI following the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005.
The German became the oldest man to be named pope since Clement XII, who was also 78 when he was elected in 1730.

Ratzinger was the first German pope since Victor II (1055-1057).

Read more: Could Cardinal Timothy Dolan from New York be the first American pope?

The Irish Times reports that his election was one of the fastest in many years: Pope Pius XII was elected in 1939 in three ballots on one day, while Pope John Paul I was elected in 1978 in four ballots in one day. Benedict XVI was elected after balloting of cardinals over two days.

The Pope was born in Bavaria on April 16th, 1927. He was a liberal theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council but became a conservative after the 1968 student movement prompted him to defend the faith against secularism.

The pontiff was archbishop of Munich before taking over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981 as the Roman Catholic Church's chief ideologue.

In that position, he has disciplined church dissidents and upheld church policy against attempts by liberals for reforms.