But they say he realized he didn't have the stamina for the job.
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI took a lot of people by surprise, including Monsignor Stuart Swetland, the Vice President of Catholic Identity for Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg. "Of course, it's unprecedented in the modern era so we weren't expecting it," says Monsignor Swetland. "He chose to do so on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is a day where we commemorate and pray for those who are sick."
Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on Monday, noting that his age made it difficult to carry out his duties as pontiff. "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 duty," said the Pope, during a meeting with Vatican Cardinals. Pope Benedict XVI is 85 years of age.
Monsignor Swetland says it's an example of the Benedict putting the welfare of the Catholic Church above everything else. "He's discerned that what would be best for the Church is that someone else take on the responsibilities of the Petrine Office. He'll continue his vocation as a priest," he says.
Many other Catholic leaders in the region say they sympathize with the Pope's decision. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori says he met with the pontiff six weeks ago, and said Benedict expressed affection for the Archdiocese. The Baltimore Archdiocese is the oldest Catholic Archdiocese in the United States.
Washington Archbishop William Wuerl says he's shocked at the news that Pope Benedict is resigning. But he says it was a sign of the Pope's humility and love for the Church that he concluded that he was no longer able to perform his duties.
Pope Benedict XVI's resignation takes affect at 8:00 PM Rome time on February 28th. After that, the College of Cardinals will assemble for a conclave to pick the nest pope. The Princes of the Church will be cut off from the world as they discuss and vote on someone to head the Roman Catholic Church.
Monsignor Swetland doesn't want to speculate on who the next pope may be, noting that some predictions could turn out to be wrong. "Last time, Benedict was not on the short list. People quite frankly thought he was too old. And, of course, within a few votes, they elected Benedict as pope," he says.
Before he announced his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI was entering his eighth year as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Monsignor Swetland says Benedict will be remembered as a great teacher. "No pope has given us the kind of writing that this pope has, in the sense that he gave us three volumes of a life of Jesus, using the best of modern scholarship and integrating that with a traditional understanding of who Jesus is and what his teaching is," says Monsignor Swetland.
In addition, Swetland says Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered for being a "Good Shepard during a difficult period for the Church. He gave us fatherly care, during a time when we needed it, and even to the point of recognizing that it was time for someone else to provide that care."
Pope Benedict XVI took over in April, 2005, following the death of Pope John Paul II. He was 78 at the time. But he grew frail, even as he tried to deal with the fallout form a sex scandal that had festered under Pope John Paul, and became the biggest crisis in the Church in decades.