We are now closing this Live Report on the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
But before we do, here is a brief recap of the main developments in the story:
- Pope Benedict has said he is stepping down on February 28 after just eight years as pontiff;
- The 85-year-old said that "my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry";
- A diehard traditionalist who stressed family values and opposed abortion and gay marriage, he has attracted plenty of controversy during his time as pontiff. But he drew plaudits from around the world on his resignation, including from US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yona Metzger;
-A new pope is expected to be chosen before Easter Sunday on March 31. Early favourites for the role include cardinals Francis Arinze of Nigeria, Peter Turkson of Ghana and Marc Ouellet of Canada.
Be sure to keep following AFP's coverage online and through the @AFP Twitter feed for all the breaking updates. LIVE REPORT ENDS.
1833 GMT: It seems the Italian journalist who got the scoop on the pope's resignation did so thanks to her knowledge of Latin.
"Our Vatican expert Giovanna Chirri was listening to the pope's speech," the ANSA news agency's head of information Luigi Contu told AFP.
"At one point, the pope stopped talking about the consistory. Chirri understood he was saying he was tired, that the pressure was too much, and that he was going to stop."
Chirri later modestly played down her success, tweeting: "Benedict XVI's Latin is very easy to understand."
1823 GMT: The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, says he was shocked by the resignation and asked for prayers for those choosing the pope's successor.
"Pope Benedict has resigned in circumstances of his own choosing," he said in a statement.
"While it is a shock to me, we can be certain that Pope Benedict has made this decision after very careful and prayerful reflection."
1806 GMT: My AFP colleagues in Lagos, Nigeria have been speaking to the city's Archbishop Alfred Adewale Martins about the news.
Asked about the prospect of an African pope, he said: "Obviously the choice of who becomes pope is not a merely human calculation alone, but rather the work of the Holy Spirit as well.
"We would allow the Holy Spirit to do his work and give to us the man, the person, who is best suited to the life of the church at this point in time."
1800 GMT: More reaction from groups representing young people who suffered abuse at the hands of church staff.
"No matter how tired or weak Pope Benedict may be, he still has two weeks to use his vast power to protect youngsters. Before he steps down, we hope he will show true leadership and compassion and take tangible action to safeguard vulnerable children," read a statement by SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, issued in the US.
"Imagine the shock waves -- and the hope -- that would be generated if, in his waning days, the pontiff demoted, disciplined, or defrocked even a handful of bishops who are concealing child sex crimes. And imagine the deterrent that would be to present and future cover ups."
1727 GMT: In a written statement, Barack Obama says of the pope: "Michelle and I wish to extend our appreciation and prayers to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI."
He added that he and his wife warmly remembered meeting him in 2009.
1719 GMT: US PRESIDENT OBAMA OFFERS 'APPRECIATION' AND PRAYERS TO POPE
1657 GMT: AFP's Ralf Isermann has been to the pope's birthplace, the southern German town of Marktl am Inn, to get reactions from the local community.
The town is proud of its papal connection and has even sold "pope beer" and "Vatican bread" to mark the link.
Maximilian Liedl, 59, said he was "very surprised" at the news.
"My wife rang me and I could hardly believe it. But he will know why he did it. It's better that he resign than he talks rubbish. But I still find it sad," he said.
Liedl added proudly: "The pope and I have the same belly button... the same midwife tied our umbilical cords at birth."
1645 GMT: An English couple who were blessed by Pope Benedict on Saturday have told AFP's Angus MacKinnon that the pontiff looked frail.
"As he came past me, he was looking to the left but he suddenly turned to the right and he caught my eye. There was a split second when he was looking right at me," Hilary Stafford Northcote said.
"I must say I thought 'gosh he's not very long for this world.' But he has got such an aura of holiness. You feel he is a deeply holy man."
Her husband Hugh added that he was surprised by the news: "I always thought retirement for the pope was like divorce -- you don't do it. You go on until you've dropped."
1620 GMT: What will Pope Benedict XVI's legacy be when he retires later this month?
The Catholic Church is still grappling with child abuse scandals involving priests. It also faces increasing secularism in the West.
He was the first pope to express "shame" over the abuse and to meet victims.
But he was criticised for failing to realise the scale of the problem in his previous role as head of the Church's main doctrinal body.
This issue remains, as does that of how the Church remains relevant in the modern world.
He has said he believes the Church will be marginalised if it does not keep up with the times -- but has also said it must remain demanding.
1600 GMT: Celebrities have also taken to Twitter to respond to the pope's resignation.
CNN talk show host Piers Morgan compares Benedict XVI's tenure unfavourably with that of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II: "The Queen's a year older than The Pope. Can't see her ever resigning because she's tired. #indefatigability1infallibility0".
US actress Mia Farrow adds: "The last time a pope willingly resigned was in 1294 Hoping for a more progressive successor - imagine a pope more like Arch Desmond Tutu".
1550 GMT: Some Twitter users are cracking jokes about the pope's resignation using the hashtag #popejoke.
Some of the gags include: "You know that the economy is bad when even God is laying people off" and "Rafael Benitez to be named as the interim Pope."
Benitez is, of course, interim manager of Chelsea FC.
1533 GMT: The president of the US conference of Roman Catholic bishops has described the pope's surprise decision to resign as "another sign of his great care for the Church."
"We are sad that he will be resigning but grateful for his eight years of selfless leadership as successor of St Peter," added Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
1523 GMT: There has been more reaction from victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, this time in Australia.
In comments cited by the Australian Associated Press, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) spokeswoman Nicky Davis said: "Victims welcome the resignation of a church official with immense power who has done so little to stop the reign of terror of child rapist priests.
"In the eyes of many victims, Joseph Ratzinger has personally done much to add to the huge number of victims and exponentially increase the suffering of those already harmed."
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Pope Benedict's resignation was an "historic moment which many Australian Catholics will greet with great emotion".
1515 GMT: The pope's brother Georg Ratzinger, himself a senior Catholic, has told AFP: "The reason for his resignation is indeed that he is feeling the burden of his age...
"I have known for a few months that this (the resignation) was planned."
1505 GMT: POPE'S BROTHER SAYS HAS KNOWN FOR MONTHS ABOUT PLANNED RESIGNATION
1500 GMT: For those just joining us, here is a quick recap of the day's events so far.
- Pope Benedict XVI has said he will resign on February 28 due to old age;
- The 85-year-old is set to retire to a monastery within the Vatican;
- A new pope is expected to be elected before March 31, Easter Sunday;
- Pope Benedict has drawn tributes from leaders, both religious and political, around the world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she had the "greatest respect" for his decision, while Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said he learnt of the news "with a heavy heart but complete understanding."
1458 GMT: AFP colleagues at the Vatican are still gathering shocked reactions from those on the ground.
Father Aaron Melancon, a 43-year-old from the US, said: "We have love and affection for Pope Benedict.
"I loved his writing as a cardinal and as a pope. I loved the leadership under him. He is the second pope in history to break the tradition and I am not in favour of this decision, but it is his own. It is not the body that governs, but the mind."
1433 GMT: A group representing people who suffered child abuse in Catholic-run institutions in Ireland has welcomed the pope's resignation.
"This pope had a great opportunity to finally address the decades of abuse in the church but at the end of the day he did nothing but promise everything," John Kelly, of the Survivors of Child Abuse support group, told AFP.
"The Church needs to acknowledge that all of this happened. They need to acknowledge that they allowed the devil inside and had him reside there for 50 years."
A string of official reports in Ireland in recent years have lifted the lid on decades of child abuse in religious institutions stretching back to the foundation of the state in 1922.
1415 GMT: Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has voiced his "highest respect" for the pope's decision.
The pontiff has exercised "extraordinary courage and an extraordinary sense of responsibility," Napolitano added.
1405 GMT: Following his resignation, Pope Benedict is expected to retire to a monastery within the Vatican walls.
Last year, he suffered the strain of seeing his former trusted butler Paolo Gabriele sentenced to 18 months for stealing secret papal memos.
In December, he pardoned Gabriele over the "Vatileaks" scandal but expelled him from the Vatican.
1357 GMT: AFP's Dario Thuburn has been speaking to people at St Peter's to get their reactions to the surprise news.
Marta, 38, on holiday from Spain with her husband, said: "It's a really bad thing. He should have stayed for life, you can't just leave when you want to."
Jennifer, 30, from Colorado in the US, added: "I was really shocked. In our media-dominated culture, it's a unique challenge for the pope to be so available constantly so if he has lost some of his faculties, I guess he's done the right thing.
"It's sadder today than when pope John Paul II died because at least that was natural."
1352 GMT: At the more frivolous end of the betting scale, Paddy Power is offering odds of 500/1 on U2 singer Bono being the next pope.
Fellow British bookmakers Coral are offering 2000/1 on disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong or AC Milan footballer Mario Balotelli.
1348 GMT: More on the possible successors to the pope.
British bookmaker William Hill is tipping Nigeria's Francis Arinze, 80, as favourite with odds of 2/1. A spokesman explains why.
"When we opened betting last time around, in 2005, Francis Arinze was our favourite," the spokesman told AFP.
"When Ratzinger became pope, Arinze took over from him as cardinal bishop of Valletri-Segni (a Catholic diocese close to Rome) -- it could be that he'll follow in his footsteps again."
1338 GMT: A spokesman for Philiippine President Beningo Aquino has joined those voicing their sadness at the resignation.
The Philippines is regarded as a bastion of Catholicism in Asia -- about 80 percent of the country's 100 million people are Catholic.
"Not only the Catholic world, but all peoples and nations of goodwill are filled with great regret," a spokesman for Aquino, Edwin Lacierda, said in a statement.
"At this time, when the pope has announced the physical challenges he faces makes it difficult to continue bearing the burdens of his office, we join the Catholic world and all whose lives he has touched in prayer and sympathy."
1333 GMT: Bookmakers are already offering odds on who is likely to replace Pope Benedict.
Paddy Power make Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada favourite at 5/2, followed by Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria at 3/1 and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana at 4/1.
Will the Catholic Church take the opportunity to appoint an African pope? An intriguing prospect.
1326 GMT: After a cardinal is chosen, he is asked if he agrees to become pope and what name he wishes to be known by.
He immediately becomes Pontifex Maximus, or the Holy Roman Pontiff.
The dean of the college of cardinals then steps on to the Vatican's main balcony and declares: "Habemus Papam!", Latin for "We have a Pope!"
The new pope then appears on the balcony and delivers a blessing.
1321 GMT: How will the new pope be chosen? The outside world has to look out for a puff of white smoke from the Vatican to know when the decision has been taken.
The 120 cardinals making the decision gather and take an oath of secrecy. They remain in total isolation during the process, with only a doctor and a cook to assist them.
A secret ballot is held with four votes taking place per day until a result is achieved. The new pope has to be selected with a two-thirds majority, no matter how long it takes.
After each count, the ballot papers are burnt. If a new pope has been elected, the papers are burned with a substance that gives off white smoke, to signal the news to the waiting crowds. If no candidate has succeeded in gaining the necessary majority, the smoke is black.
1315 GMT: "He is and remains one of the most significant religious thinkers of our time," Merkel adds, paying tribute to the pope.
1311 GMT: German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she has the "greatest respect" for the pope's decision to step down.
1308 GMT: A spokesman for Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, told AFP: "During his term, the relations between the Chief Rabbinate and the Church, and Judaism and Christianity, became much closer, which brought to a decrease in anti-Semitic acts around the world."
The spokesman expressed hope that his successor would continue in the same vein.
1300 GMT: Israel's chief rabbi has said that Pope Benedict helped to reduce anti-Semitism worldwide. More on those comments to follow.
1246 GMT: Meanwhile, the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby -- the spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans -- has issued a statement expressing sadness at the news.
"It was with a heavy heart but complete understanding that we learned this morning of Pope Benedict’s declaration of his decision to lay down the burden of ministry as Bishop of Rome, an office which he has held with great dignity, insight and courage," he said.
1244 GMT: British Prime Minister David Cameron has issued a statement saying Pope Benedict will be "missed as a spiritual leader to millions."
1240 GMT: There have been other popes who stepped down in different circumstances.
There have been up to five papal abdications in 2,000 years.
But numerous other popes have been deposed or exiled, 21 popes are listed as martyrs and nine others are considered martyrs.
One of the most eye-catching cases dates back to 1045 when Benedict IX, renowned as one of the most disgraceful popes ever, sold his papacy to his godfather, pious priest John Gratian, so that he could get married.
Reportedly unable to persuade the woman in question to have him, he later returned to seize Rome.
1235 GMT: It seems we have to go back to the 13th century to find a precedent for this type of resignation.
The only other pope to step down because he felt unable to fulfil his duties was Celestine V in 1296.
He was hermit who left after a few months because he yearned for a simpler life and said he was not physically capable of performing the role.
1230 GMT: Although the pope has looked frail in recent months -- he has often used a mobile platform to get around St Peter's Basilica during services -- his move has come as a shock to most.
"The pope caught us a bit by surprise," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
1223 GMT: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to speak about the pope's resignation at 1330 GMT, her office says.
The pope, Joseph Ratzinger, is of course German -- he was born in Bavaria in 1927 and was archbishop of Munich for four years from 1977.
His brother Georg is also a senior figure in the Catholic Church and has written a book about his younger brother.
1216 GMT: Irish bookmakers Paddy Power are offering odds of 4/1 that the next pope's name will be Peter, 5/1 that it will be Pius -- and 100/1 that it will be Damian.
1208 GMT: More on that news of the pope's replacement.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters that a conclave to choose a successor could be held within 15 or 20 days of the resignation on February 28, which is due to come at precisely 2000 local time.
1203 GMT: VATICAN SAYS NEW POPE TO BE ELECTED BEFORE EASTER
1200 GMT: News of the resignation is dominating Twitter this morning.
Worldwide trending topics include "Pope", "Ratzinger", "Feb. 28" and "dimissioniPapa" -- Italian for "Pope's resignation."
1155 GMT: The pope recently started using Twitter, tweeting as @Pontifex and gathering over a million and a half followers.
His most recent tweet on Sunday said: "We must trust in the mighty power of God’s mercy. We are all sinners, but His grace transforms us and makes us new."
1152 GMT: Benedict XVI's comments have repeatedly attracted controversy during his time in the Vatican.
He stirred fury in the Muslim world in 2006 with a speech which appeared to endorse the view of a 14th cenutry Byzantine emperor that Islam is inherently evil.
In 2009, he struggled to mollify Jews after inviting a breakaway, ultra-conservative faction back into the Church by lifting the excommunication of four bishops. One of these insists no-one died in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.
1145 GMT: How will the pope be remembered after nearly eight years in the role?
He took over as successor to the highly popular John Paul II in 2005 at the age of 78.
A brilliant scholar, he was a strong defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy and had earned the nickname "God's Rottweiler."
He opposed abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia and stressed family values. His tenure has also been clouded by revelations over child abuse by Catholic priests which was often covered up.
1137 GMT: French President Francois Hollande has described the pope's decision to resign as "eminently respectable".
Meanwhile, a government spokesman in the pope's home nation of Germany has expressed "respect" and "gratitude" for him in response.
"The federal government has the greatest possible respect for the Holy Father, for his accomplishments, for his life-long work for the Catholic Church," said Steffen Seibert.
1134 GMT: The pope has explained his decision to a meeting of cardinals, saying his strength has "deteriorated" in the last few months.
"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 to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry," he told the meeting.
"In order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
WELCOME to AFP's Live Report on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
In a surprise move, the pope has said he will resign on February 28, a Vatican spokesman has said.
The 85-year-old pontiff says he lacks the strength to govern due to his age. He will be the first pope to step down for centuries.
Keep reading for all the breaking updates and reactions from around the world.