THE three most senior figures in the Catholic Church in England and Wales have paid tribute to Pope Benedict XVI after the Pontiff announced he was leaving office on grounds of age and infirmity.
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 85-year-old Pontiff, saying that his announcement had shown “great courage.”
“Pope Benedict’s announcement today has shocked and surprised everyone,” he said in a statement.
“Yet, on reflection, I am sure that many will recognise it to be a decision of great courage and characteristic clarity of mind and action.
“The Holy Father recognises the challenges facing the Church and that ‘strength of mind and body are necessary’ for his tasks of governing the Church and proclaiming the Gospel.
“I salute his courage and his decision.
“I ask people of faith to keep Pope Benedict in their prayers. We Catholics will do so, with great affection and the highest esteem for his ministry as our Holy Father remembering with joy his Visit to the United Kingdom in 2010.
“Pray, too, for the Church and all the steps that must take place in the next weeks. We entrust ourselves to the loving Providence of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who retired as Archbishop of Westminster in 2009, said: “My reaction was one of surprise and then gratitude for his service and leadership of the Church over the past seven years in troubled times.
“He has been a great teacher, thinking particularly of his visit to Britain and the example he gave of being a Good Shepherd and a good pastor.
“We think of him with gratitude and affection.”
The Most Rev Peter Smith, Archbishop of Southwark, said he had been “quite taken aback” by the announcement.
“I was quite taken aback, because it came as a complete surprise and completely out of the blue,” he said.
He added that he was still trying to “digest” the news having been in a meeting this morning.
“My first thought when I heard the news that he was resigning, my instinct was that it is because of his health and his frailty and he feels it is an incredibly responsible task to be the chief shepherd of the Church on earth,” he said.
“I think it shows great wisdom, sensitivity and humility.”
The pope, 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.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme: “I saw him just a few months ago. There’s no doubt that age, and I suppose, the struggle of coping with such an extraordinary, onerous task was telling on him.
“He’s now 85 and so I was surprised but not shocked. I seem to remember that back in 2002 he said to somebody that one day a pope would have to resign given age and so on. To that extent I’m not surprised but I am saddened because I have real affection for Pope Benedict, whom I met on many, many occasions as a cardinal and then as pope.”
The two most senior figures in the Church of England also paid tribute to the pope.
The Most Rev Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “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.
“As I prepare to take up office I speak not only for myself, and my predecessors as archbishop, but for Anglicans around the world, in giving thanks to God for a priestly life utterly dedicated, in word and deed, in prayer and in costly service, to following Christ.
“He has laid before us something of the meaning of the Petrine ministry of building up the people of God to full maturity.
“In his visit to the United Kingdom, Pope Benedict showed us all something of what the vocation of the See of Rome can mean in practice - a witness to the universal scope of the gospel and a messenger of hope at a time when Christian faith is being called into question.
“In his teaching and writing he has brought a remarkable and creative theological mind to bear on the issues of the day.
“We who belong to other Christian families gladly acknowledge the importance of this witness and join with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in thanking God for the inspiration and challenge of Pope Benedict’s ministry.
“We pray that God will bless him profoundly in retirement with health and peace of mind and heart, and we entrust to the Holy Spirit those who have a responsibility to elect his successor.”
Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said: “With the news that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at the end of February, the Christian world will miss a great theologian with great spiritual depth.
“We should remember Pope Benedict communicated the revelation of God in a characteristic way as a true successor of St Peter.
“He was unafraid to proclaim the Gospel and challenge a culture that is so self-referential, managing to lift our eyes to God’s glory.
“Let us all lift our eyes to the glory of God, embracing his love and care for this world.”
The pope’s shock decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect his successor before the end of March.
Up to 120 cardinals, aged under 80 and from all over the world, will vote to chose his successor.
Only one British cardinal, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, 74, from Scotland, is eligible to vote in the conclave.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, who turned 80 last August, will take part in the discussions by cardinals to elect the Pope’s successor, but will not be eligible to cast a vote on grounds of his age.
The pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals this morning.
He emphasised that carrying out the duties of being pope - the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide - requires “both strength of mind and body”.
“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 cardinals.
“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering.
“However, 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 St Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary - strengths which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”
The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415 as part of a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.
Benedict called his choice “a decision of great importance for the life of the church”.