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Catholics 'caught by surprise' after pope announces resignation

When Monsignor Stuart Swetland first heard about Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, he thought it had to be a mistake.

It was not. Just two days before Ash Wednesday, Pope Benedict surprised Catholics by announcing his resignation Monday, becoming the first pontiff to do so in 600 years.

Benedict, 85, said he lacked the strength to do his job, although The Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted his decision, according to the Associated Press.

He announced he will leave his position Feb. 28, which will lead to a conclave at The Vatican to elect a new leader in March. A new pope could be in place for Easter.

"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 the demands of being the pope, Benedict said during a meeting of Vatican cardinals in an announcement that surprised even his closest collaborators.

Swetland, a Vice President for Catholic Identity at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, was startled by the news, mainly due to how rare a papal resignation is.

"I was, like everybody else, caught by surprise" he said. "It is so unprecedented in modern times."

The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, a dispute among competing papal claimants.

A conclave will convene to decide Benedict's successor. All cardinals younger than 80 are allowed to vote. There are currently 118 cardinals who meet that criteria.

Benedict was named pope after the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. When he was elected, Benedict was the oldest pope chosen in nearly 300 years.

He will be remembered for his conservative course and scholarly ways, Swetland said.

"I think the main thing people will look back on is his teaching," Swetland said. "He is a great theologian and teacher. Uniquely, we have a pope that has given us three volumes on the life of Jesus."

He called Benedict a good shepherd during a very difficult time for the church, including a global clerical sex abuse scandal during his tenure.

"He has provided steady leadership," Swetland said. "I think one of the reasons he is stepping aside is he feels it's time for somebody else to provide the leadership for the church."

Monsignor James Farmer, of St. John Catholic Church in Westminster, plans on addressing the pope's resignation in upcoming masses.

Farmer was surprised to hear the news of Benedict's resignation Monday morning.

"He's holy, humble and honest," Farmer said. "He apparently feels that the best thing he can do for the church right now is let a person who is more active or healthy take over."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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