Catholics around the world — and at home — awoke to the news this morning that Pope Benedict XVI announced he is stepping down from his role as the spiritual leader of the Catholic church on Feb. 28 due of his health.
That makes him the first pontiff in more than 600 years to resign the post, rather than remaining in the role for his lifetime.
"I don't know anyone who saw this coming," the Rev. William Benwell, Vicar General of the Diocese of Metuchen, said.
Yet, the pope gave reasons for retiring that many would think that, at age 85, make a lot of sense, including note of his advanced age.
The Diocese of Metuchen, which includes Mary Mother of God Church, in Hillsborough, and St. Joseph's Church, in Millstone, posted a statement on its website acknowledging the historic significance of the announcement, saying it was "unprecedented in modern times."
“Along with the rest of the world, I continue to process today’s sudden and unexpected announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will resign his office of Bishop of Rome on Feb. 28," the Rev. Paul G. Bootkoski said.
"It is not a complete surprise, however, that this man of great humility and dedication would recognize his inability to carry out fully the duties his office requires and would put first what ultimately is best for the Catholic Church and its members. I ask all to join me in praying for the Holy Father and for the College of Cardinals which will elect his successor.”
The Bishop has also announced a Mass of Thanksgiving for Pope Benedict’s Papacy for 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi, in Metuchen.
Benwell noted Pope Benedict's decision is not ony historically unusual but also unusual for our times.
"It strikes me as certainly kind of a 'counter-culture' act," Benwell said. "We live in a very celebrity-laden culture, where people like to be seen and here we have someone who is willing not to put themselves out in front."
Benwell added he believes Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered well for making the decision in recognition of how own frailties, a view echoed by the Rev. Brian Nolan, at St. Mary's-Stony Hill Roman Catholic Church, in Watchung.
"It was courageous of him to recognize the burdens of his office," Nolan said. But, he added, it fits with Pope Benedict's humility, which Nolan believes Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered for—along with the historical anomaly.
"It's the first time in modern history we're going to have two living popes," Nolan said, adding that Pope Benedict's humility means it's unlikely he will interfere or in any way disrupt his successor. "He's going to spend the rest of his life in prayer. He's an academic and may do some writing."
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, in 1415, who stepped down amid a battle within the church between what's called the "Great Western Schism," when French churches elected separate popes during the time of the Avignon Papacy—whih the Rev. Nolan said was the last time the church had two (or in the case of Pope Gregory, three living popes—Antipope Benedict XIII, of Avignon, and Antipope John XXIII, of Pisa).
Nolan said that while the pope is an important figure in the Catholic church, Pope Benedict's decision to step down will have little impact on the local parish.
"He's a father figure, and we do pray for the pope as part of our Mass," he said, but for most, the connection to the pope is through the images relayed via the media.