Catholic worshipers and leaders across the city were stunned Monday by the sudden news that Pope Benedict XVI plans to step down this month.
A Vatican spokesman announced Monday morning that the 85-year-old pope is planning to resign February 28, citing health concerns.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who did so in 1415 to end the so-called Western Schism, when two European men claimed the title of pontiff.
In his announcement, 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 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 recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
Once the pope resigns, the College of Cardinals, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, will convene in Rome to elect a new pontiff.
Speaking to reporters Monday morning, Dolan said the news came as a shock.
"I'm not kidding, I was very startled. I don't know what to say," said Dolan. " I myself am waiting for information, for instructions as to what we would do now as the College of Cardinals, and as soon as I find out I'll let you know."
Whether Dolan himself might be a candidate, he told reporters that it is highly improbable.
It was April 2005 when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was first elected pope, succeeding John Paul II, and the 78-year-old pontiff chose the name Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict, who was born in Germany, was known as a theological conservative and many believe he was chosen as a caretaker who would not change direction.
He was elected in just one day.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn said Benedict's past as a university professor was evident.
"He was so clear in his understanding of issues, being able to preach homilies that were understandable was a great contribution," DiMarzio said.
Benedict's ailing health has been evident for some time. He recently started using a moving platform to get to and from the altar in St. Peter's Basilica.
His brother says doctors advised the pope not to take any more long trips like the one he took to New York in 2008 when he celebrated Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral and Yankee Stadium.
Dolan said Benedict was open about his physical condition.
"It’s a bit of sadness, like watching your own dad get old and admit he’s not up to all the duties being head of the families involves," said Dolan. "There’s somberness there, a sadness there."
The founder of the country's largest Irish immigrant center, which has offices in the Bronx and Queens, said a heavy travel schedule is one aspect of a modern papacy.
"We all believe that the Papacy has changed tremendously," said Brian O'Dwyer of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. "In the old days, the Pope would stay in Saint Peter's and say his Masses and greet people. Now the Pope is expected to be out in the world, particularly now where the church is universal, growing so much in Latin America, in Africa, all around, and so any Pope has to travel, and travel extensively. This Pope concluded that he was no longer able to do that, and rather than harm the church and harm his health, he decided to retire."
O'Dwyer said the pope likely wants to have a successor in place by Easter, which this year falls on March 31.
The Holy See says the pope will first spend some time at a papal retreat before moving to a cloistered monastery in Vatican City, where he will once again be known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Meanwhile, parishioners across the city expressed shock Monday at the pope's resignation.
Those who gathered for Mass at Our Lady of Peace in Brooklyn say while the news is sudden they respect the pope's decision.
"I was shocked, but also I'm proud of him, that he reached this point of thought and prayed about it for a long time, and it's a good decision," said one parishioner.
"He knows how he feels, and if he's not able to continue in his duties, I could understand why he would want to do it, but we're going to be sorry seeing him go," said another parishioner.
President Barack Obama also sent his thanks and prayers to the pope, saying he and the first lady had warm memories of their 2009 visit with the pontiff.
Obama also offered best wishes to the cardinals who will gather in mid-March to choose Benedict's successor.
This week marks the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. The 40-day period of reflection ends on Good Friday.
Web Extra: Dolan Reacts To News Of Pope Resigning
NY1: Pope's Resignation Catches NYC Faithful By Surprise
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