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Catholics taken by pope's surprise resignation

The faithful were taken by surprise Monday by the bombshell announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will resign.

Declaring that he lacks the strength to do his job, the 85-year-old Benedict said he will resign Feb. 28 – becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to step down.

"It didn't overly shock me," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, assistant principal and theology teacher at Marian Central Catholic High School. "But I certainly was not expecting it over my morning Raisin Bran."

The announcement came during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, to whom Benedict characterized his choice as "a decision of great importance for the life of the church."

"I think he [resigned] after a lot of prayer and thought," said the Rev. Christopher DiTomo, a priest at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church in Crystal Lake. "I don't think it's something he would do hastily."

DiTomo discussed the resignation at Monday's early morning Masses, and said most of the parish was shocked, if not uneasy, about the change.

"Although everyone might be a little anxious when change happens, we trust that God has a plan," he said.

Bishop of the Rockford Diocese David J. Malloy was appointed by Benedict and said he feels a "special closeness" with the pontiff. He has met the pope on several occasions during trips to Rome.

"The pope’s gestures of kindness and priestly virtue were always a most striking characteristic of his personality," Malloy said in a statement. "Second, I am particularly grateful, and feel a deep personal attachment, to our Holy Father for appointing me as the ninth Bishop of the Diocese of Rockford."

The pope announced his resignation at a meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprising even his closest collaborators even though he previously made clear that he would step down if he became too old or infirm to carry on.

There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner – the same situation when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.

All cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave, the secret meeting held in the Sistine Chapel where cardinals cast ballots to elect a new pope. As per tradition, the ballots are burned after each voting round; black smoke from the chimney means no pope has been chosen; white smoke means a pope has been elected.

Choosing a new papal leader is a decision that DiTomo said is guided by "the holy spirit."

"We trust that the one we get as the next pope is the one that's meant to be," he said.

The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415. The most famous resignation was Pope Celestine V in 1294; Dante placed him in hell for it.

When Benedict was elected in 2005 at age 78, he was the oldest pope chosen in nearly 300 years. At the time, he had been planning to retire as the Vatican's chief orthodoxy watchdog to spend his final years writing in the "peace and quiet" of his native Bavaria.

During his tenure, Benedict charted a very conservative course for the church, trying to reawaken Christianity in Europe where it had fallen by the wayside and return the church to its traditional roots, which he felt had been betrayed by an incorrect interpretation of the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

His efforts, though, were overshadowed by a worldwide clerical sex abuse scandal, communication gaffes that outraged Jews and Muslims alike and, more recently, a scandal over leaked documents by his own butler. Many of his stated priorities as pope also fell short: He failed to establish relations with China, heal the schism and reunite with the Orthodox Church, or reconcile with a group of breakaway, traditionalist Catholics.

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