ROMAN Catholics have spoken of their shock after the Pope announced his resignation on the grounds of age and infirmity.
Pope Benedict XVI, who was elected in 2005 as leader of the more than a billion strong Catholic Church, will resign on February 28 – the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years.
The 85-year-old German-born Pontiff has been known as a a staunch enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy and disciplinarian who was unafraid to crack down on liberals and dissidents within the church.
He gained the nickname of ‘God’s Rottweiler’ for his pursuit of Catholic theologians and clergy seen to stray from orthodox teaching.
The Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan, said: ‘I am personally very sad at this news but as a Bishop with all it entails I can completely understand the Holy Father’s reason.
‘It is many centuries since a Pope resigned from office and this will be a new situation for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
‘The Diocese of Portsmouth is full of gratitude to God for all we have received from Pope Benedict XVI.
‘We pray for him and for his health and we ask the Lord for His grace and guidance for the Church. We pray for the man who will be alled next to fulfil the office of Peter given to us by Christ.’
Father Tom Grufferty, of St Joseph’s Church in West Street, Havant, said: ‘Nobody in the church saw this coming most of all the people in Rome and elsewhere who watch for things like this.
‘Concerns have been expressed about the Pope’s age and his frailty
‘Several Popes have resigned usually because of difficulty in the Papacy or because of wars in Europe.
‘So it is very unusual for a Pope to step down in these circumstances.’
But Father Tom said he respected the decision of Pope Benedict, who visited Scotland and England for four days in September 2010.
He added: ‘I think he’s been looking frail, even when he visited (the UK).
‘I think it’s old age. I think it’s a very sensible thing to do actually.
‘At 85 most people have been retired 20 years.’
The Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and leader of Catholics in England and Wales, called on ‘people of faith’ to pray for the Pontiff, saying that his announcement had shown ‘great courage’.
The influential College of Cardinals must now meet in Rome and choose Pope Benedict XVI’s replacement in a tradition dating back almost 1,000 years.
Since 1059, the selection of the next head of the Catholic church has been reserved to the College of Cardinals who are appointed by the pope.
Up to 120 cardinals, aged under 80 and from all over the world, will vote.