When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation Monday, the world, in particular, the Catholic world, was stunned.
Benedict, 85, who was elected and installed in 2005, will step down on Feb. 28. He is the first pope to voluntarily leave office in more than 500 years.
Like many, Fr. John Neff of both St. Luke Catholic Church in Youngsville and St. Anthony of Padua in Sheffield was surprised by Benedict's resignation.
"We're just in shock right now," Neff said. "It's been since the 1400s" since a pope resigned.
"I heard it at mass this morning," Fr. James Gutting of Holy Redeemer in Warren said. "They usually don't resign or retire."
Although the papacy is a ministry, it is work, Gutting said. "There's a lot to it. It's an incredible ministry. I don't know how one person could do that job in their prime."
There are an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
Masses at Holy Redeemer include a prayer for "Our Holy Father Benedict," Gutting said. "He needs it."
Benedict's decision is one of strength in the face of growing weakness of body.
Neff said Benedict witnessed what deteriorating health had done to his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, for whom he was a close advisor. Pope John Paul died in 2005 at the age of 85.
"It took a lot of courage for him to get up there and say, 'I don't have the strength or the health to continue my ministry'," Neff said. "Anybody who's watched him for the last year and a half has seen him getting more frail."
"I admire his integrity," Gutting said.
The surprise, as well as the admiration for the decision, are mirrored by the head of the Diocese of Erie.
"It was with great surprise that I heard the news that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning- this is the first time in 600 years that a pope has resigned," Bishop Lawrence Persico said in a statement released Monday. "The Holy Father realized that his age and health would make it difficult to continue fulfilling the role entrusted to him as the supreme pastor of the church."
"I think he should be commended for his decision," Persico said. "He not only has the wisdom and foresight to see the limitations of his age and health, but also has the humility to give up the office of St. Peter. He was able to humbly resign the office entrusted to him, making way for the church to have a new pastor, someone who will take up his leadership and continue the pastoral and spiritual care of the church."
"It is a difficult time for the Roman Catholic Church, indeed for all churches," Neff said. "Western Europe has seen increasing secularization. (Benedict) sees the trend happening in this country."
"There's so much going on in the world with all the division," Gutting said. "There's a lot going on in our church too, right now."
"I think the (next) pope has to exercise a stabilizing ministry and also be faithful to the teachings of the church while at the same being pastoral to those who disagree," Neff said.
Gutting would like to see the next pope "incorporate the laity as much as possible with the clergy. We want to call out the gifts and talents of all the people... call for all baptized Catholics to be active outside the church door - preach it, mostly through the way we live our lives."
"I never had the opportunity to meet Pope Benedict XVI, but I certainly have a bond with him as he is the one who appointed me as Bishop of Erie," Persico said.
"Pope Benedict brought to the papacy the mind of a scholar and the heart of a pastor," he said. "For eight years he has led the church, during which time he responded to some very serious concerns. He gave us an excellent example of selfless leadership."
"At this time, I ask all of the faithful of the Diocese of Erie to pray for Pope Benedict XVI and to pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals of the Catholic Church as they prepare for the conclave where they will elect the new pope," he said. "Pray they will elect someone who will truly fit the needs of the time for the church."