A poster of Pope Benedict XVI hangs near the Mohammad Al Amin mosque in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Image Credit: AFP

His decision to step down as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion roman Catholics is without precedent in nearly six centuries, but Pope Benedict XVI is 85 and in poor health.

While the exact nature of his illness remains a secret closely guarded by Vatican officials, he has been absent from a number of important public appearances recently.

On Sunday, the Order of Malta was honoured with a mass and parade in St Peter’s in the heart of the Vatican to mark its 900th anniversary — but Pope Benedict was absent.

His resignation came on Monday, just before the start of Lent, a time of penitence and reflection for Roman Catholics.

The Vatican said it expects to have a new pope in place before Easter celebrations at the end of March. The pontiff’s resignation takes effect on February 28.

Born in Bavaria as Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on 16 April 1927, he served — as all German youth were required then — in the Hitler Youth. In the devastation that followed the Second World War and Allied occupation of Western Germany, he was ordained a priest in 1951.

He rose quickly through the ranks of the church, doggedly opposing trends of liberalisation in matters of women, celibacy and family planning. He became the right-hand-man for Pope John Paul II, earning the nickname as the ‘Papal Rotweiler’ for enforcing the then pontiff’s strict conservative views on traditional Roman Catholic values.

As the enforcer of church discipline, he handled the case files for priests who were accused of molesting both boys and girls in its care — angering many for his steadfast refusal to allow law enforcement authorities around the world to operate freely, instead colluding with church officials in various jurisdictions to move priests facing prosecution.

By the time of Pope John Paul II’s death in March 2005, Ratzinger was the Dean of the College of Cardinals and one of the Polish-born pontiff’s closest advisors.

Ratzinger was in the position of having approved and overseen the appointment of many of the curia of cardinals — princes of the church who meet to elect a new pope.

Ratzinger was elected pope in April, 2005. Since then, his reign has been one of maintaining the church’s staunch opposition to liberalisation, maintaining traditional conservative views on family planning, the marriage of priests, women’s role within the church and its strict and fierce opposition to abortion in any and every circumstance.

But unlike his predecessor, Benedict XVI was a divisive figure, angering Muslims early in his papacy when he quoted from a 14th Century text saying that the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) had only brought “evil and inhuman” things.