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Catholics everywhere have something to say

The world reacts to the pope's shocking announcement.

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Pope Benedict XVI meets Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, President of Tanzania, at his private library in 2007. (Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

Catholicism loves its traditions. Being 2,000 years old, this is perhaps not surprising. What is surprising is when those traditions are broken.

On Monday, the Vatican announced that, for the first time in 600 years, the pope will resign at the end of the month. Pope Benedict XVI, for reasons of poor health and old age, has said he will step down Feb. 28.

Reactions around the world have been swift and varied. Many who respect the church are congratulatory toward the pope, while others have expressed disdain.

As Catholic numbers dwindle in Europe and North America the growth of the church in Africa and elsewhere has led to calls for the next pope to be selected from the "global South." That call was ignored last time around when Benedict XVI replaced John Paul II.

Perhaps this time that tradition too will be broken.

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Many ordinary Catholics appeared stunned on Monday.

Italian TV reported bemused tourists and pilgrims in St. Peter's square. "I'm really surprised," one Spanish speaking woman told RAI News. "This is unprecedented, but we must respect his decision."

“He has acknowledged man’s weakness," a nun called Sister Agnese told TG24, an Italian news channel. "He is a great man, a man of faith.”

Tributes to the Pope poured in from clergy and world leaders.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the decision reflects the pope's "profound sense of duty to the church, and also his deep appreciation of the unique pressures of spiritual leadership in the modern world."

In Britain, there were expressions of sadness and support for a pontiff who won admirers during a state visit in 2010.

"I salute his courage and his decision," said Archbishop Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, praising the pope for admitting he is too frail to meet "challenges" facing the church.

In Benedict's homeland Germany, where nearly one-third of people are Catholic, Chancellor Angela Merkel thanked the pope for his work and said his resignation deserved "the absolute highest respect." She said he "remains one of the most important religious thinkers of our time."

French President Francois Hollande greeted the pope's move with a low-key response, describing it as “eminently respectable.”

Though officially secular, France is traditionally seen as a Catholic country with more than 60 percent of its citizens claiming an affinity with the church. French TV showed people in tears at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. However, recent research showed fewer than 3 percent practice the religion in France.


Even in Korea, where 10 percent of the population is Catholic, the news ripples. Shin Choon-ja, 70, a devout Catholic living in a suburb of Seoul, had just heard the news Monday evening.

"I'm so sad," Shin said. "The pope prayed for all Catholics and we prayed for him, but he's resigning. He did a lot of good things bringing the church around the world."

Not everyone was a fan.

On the streets of the UK, where one in 12 people are Catholic, there were shrugs of indifference from non-believers and outbursts of hostility towards the Roman Catholic church for its perceived intolerance towards gender and sexual equality and the exposure of past abuse scandals.

"Because of the child abuse thing, yeah?" asked music student Nat Saunderson, an atheist, on hearing news of the resignation. "Well he should have resigned because of that. Not that whoever replaces him will make the church any better."

Consultant Terri Stanford, 36, who calls herself a non-denominational, non-practicing Christian, expressed hope that the next pope would be more tolerant on homosexuality and gender equality.

"Perhaps a younger pope could shake things up a bit. I doubt anything will change though, too many people would be upset," Stanford said.

Associations representing victims of child abuse by priests said he failed to take sufficient action against predators and Muslim representatives said he'd damaged relations with Islam with comments made early in his pontificate.

"The Catholic church now has a chance to return back to the teachings and practices of Pope John Paul II which were of inter-faith work and respect for our respective positions and I hope that once a new pope is elected we actually see our faiths come together,"
Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation think-tank told The Guardian.

Europe, the home of the pope, only accounts for 25 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. Meanwhile, 42 percent of Catholics live in Latin America.

The Americas

In Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the country's highest-ranking church official, praised Benedict's decision to step down as an act of "humility," but acknowledged the news was "a big surprise."

"The Pope breaks once more with tradition and isn't afraid to tell the world he's too weak and tired to go on with the huge responsibility of governing the Catholic Church," Ortega said in a statement.

Benedict's visit to Cuba in March 2011, a trip timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Cuba's patron saint, The Virgin of Charity of Cobre, endeared him to many Cuban Catholics.

"It was a beautiful visit, and it meant a lot to us," said Margarita Barrios, 35, who had just attended a friend's daughter's confirmation at the Jesus de Miramar cathedral in western Havana. "It was so important to us that he showed deference to the Virgin of Charity, a beloved symbol for all Cubans."

In a country where many have learned to be skeptical of official explanations, some said they had a hard time believing that the pope would choose to step down because of illness.

"Popes don't resign for health reasons," said Rey Valdes, 39. "Look at John Paul II, who had been sick for years, and had been shot in that assassination attempt. He didn't resign."

"There must be another reason," Valdes said.

Rev. Stephen T. Ayres, the vicar at the Old North Church in Boston's North End, believes that Benedict’s decision to step down was a pragmatic one.  

“I can certainly understand if you work a job that demanding, I think it’s healthy,” Ayres said. “I think it’s a very legitimate reason to step down, so let’s move onto the politics and who is going to run next.”