WASHINGTON: World political and religious leaders expressed surprise but respect for Pope Benedict XVI’s shock announcement on Monday of his historic resignation due to “incapacity” because of his age.
The US conference of Roman Catholic bishops saluted Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise decision to resign as “another sign of his great care for the Church.”
“We are sad that he will be resigning but grateful for his eight years of selfless leadership as successor of St Peter,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the conference.
In London, Justin Welby, leader of the world’s Anglicans - who at 57 is 28 years younger than the pope - said he understood the pontiff’s decision “with a heavy heart.”
Welby, who is head of the 85-million strong worldwide Anglican communion as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, said Pope Benedict held his office with “great dignity, insight and courage.”
Describing the decision as “eminently respectable,” French President Francois Hollande said his country, where the vast majority are of Catholic heritage, “hails the pope who took this decision.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself the daughter of a Protestant pastor, said she had the “greatest respect” for the German-born pope’s “difficult” decision.
“He is and remains one of the most significant religious thinkers of our time,” Merkel added.
A spokesman for Merkel earlier said the pope deserved “gratitude” for his nearly eight years as pope, saying he had left a “very personal mark” on the Church, “both as a thinker and a shepherd.”
“The federal government has the greatest possible respect for the Holy Father, for his accomplishments, for his life-long work for the Catholic Church,” Steffen Seibert told a regular government news conference.
“Whatever the reasons may be for this declaration, they should be honoured and respected and he deserves gratitude for leading this world church for eight years in such a way,” he added as news was breaking of the pope’s resignation.
Pope Benedict was born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927 in the predominantly Catholic southern German region of Bavaria, whose state premier Horst Seehofer said the decision deserved the “greatest respect even though I personally deeply regret it.”
The head of the Polish Catholic Church, Bishop Wojciech Polak, said Benedict’s resignation was “a big surprise for us all.”
“But Pope Benedict XVI had already reflected several times on the question of whether, at his advanced age, he had the strength to carry out properly his duties as the successor of Saint Peter,” he said.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, where Catholics are in a minority to Anglicans, said the pope “will be missed as a spiritual leader to millions.”
“He has worked tirelessly to strengthen Britain’s relations with the Holy See,” Cameron said in a statement. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of Scotland’s Catholics, said he was “shocked and saddened” by the decision.
He urged Catholics in Scotland to pray for the pope “at this time of deterioration in his health as he recognises his incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to him.”
A spokesman for the foreign affairs department of the Russian Orthodox Church said he did not anticipate any major change of course as a result of the pope’s resignation.