In a surprise announcement that stunned even those in his inner circle, Pope Benedict XVI said he will step down as head of the Roman Catholic Church at the end of February, citing “advanced age” and deteriorating health.
He is the first pope to resign from the papacy in nearly 600 years.
In a speech delivered in Latin to members of a consistory, or church council, Pope Benedict revealed his intentions Monday, saying: “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 is the first pope to resign since Pope Gregory XII in 1415.
The 85-year-old pontiff’s announcement sent shockwaves through the church, as millions of Catholic faithful prepare to celebrate the start of the Easter season.
Catholics across Southwest Florida said the pope’s decision to step down is the right thing to do, given the demands of the church and the challenges facing Catholics as they struggle to defend a religion critics contend has failed to keep up with modern times and protect the most vulnerable among them.
“He’s old. I can understand that at an age like that he can’t deal with all that,” said Sister Virginia Conant, a retired Port Charlotte nun who recently celebrated 65 years of faithful service. “Let’s hope that they get a nice young person who will lead (the church).”
Churchgoers attending morning Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Punta Gorda on Monday had mixed reactions regarding the news, with many showing their concern for the pope’s health while at the same time lauding his decision as brave and ground-breaking.
“I think Pope Benedict is doing a very courageous thing,” said the Rev. Jim Mayworm, one of the priests who serve at Sacred Heart. “I hope it’s precedent setting, something future popes will take as a cue — if they are sick and elderly then they should step down. He’s been wonderful, but new leadership is also needed.”
It was a sentiment echoed by many Englewood Catholics, who felt the pope’s decision to resign was appropriate.
“His health isn’t good,” said Geri Whiteley, a Rotonda West resident. “If he can’t fulfill his duties, it is his right. I’m sure he’s doing what’s right for the church.”
The Rev. Adrian Wilde, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Grove City, said he feels Pope Benedict’s resignation will likely take pressure off his successor.
“I think it’s good that it’s OK for a pope to resign,” Wilde said. “My feeling is, he saw John Paul (II’s) last years of his life and he wanted to bow out gracefully.”
The Rev. Frank J. Dewane, bishop of the Diocese of Venice in Florida, called the resignation a “surprise for Catholics around the world.”
“Pope Benedict XVI has been a loyal and active Shepherd for his years as Successor of St. Peter,” the bishop said in a written statement Monday. “It is no coincidence that the Holy Father concluded his statement assuring the church that he will devote his remaining years to ‘serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.’”
In his speech, Pope Benedict said, “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque 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 recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Sacred Heart parishioner Ken Honan of Punta Gorda applauded the pope for his willingness to take such a stance.
“He is merely passing down the power to someone who is in better health, stronger,” Honan said. ‘God is the winning team and the Church will survive.”
The Associated Press and staff writers Tom Chang and Elaine Allen-Emrich contributed to this article.