Cardinal Francis George said he was as surprised as everyone else when Pope Benedict XVI announced he was stepping down, saying he saw the pontiff briefly last week in Rome and “there was not the slightest indication in my mind.”
But George added during a news conference that Benedict "looks like a man who’s feeling the weight of his years.”
The cardinal, who will return to Rome to elect a new pope, said Benedict's public role was a particular burden.
"It the public role that the most effort for him and takes the most energy from him," George said, calling Benedict an introvert. "He gets tired in big crowds. . .The teaching, the decision-making [is] relatively easy in comparison to the public role."
Earlier, in a statement, George said Benedict "placed the will of God for the good of the church before every other consideration" when he decided to resign.
"He has taught with clarity and charity what God has revealed to the world in Christ, he has handed on the apostolic faith, he has loved all of God’s people with all his heart," George said in a statement. "He has now shown great courage in deciding, after prayer and soul-searching, to resign his office at the end of this month.
"With the gratitude of sons and daughters in our hearts, we ask the Lord to bless him and give him strength, as we begin to pray now for the one who will succeed him as Bishop of Rome, Successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ."
Joliet Bishop Daniel Conlon said the pope's decision "is consistent with the humble disposition that I have come to recognize in him, both in my brief personal encounters with him and in his deportment generally as earthly shepherd of the church.
"He recognized that he no longer had the physical gifts necessary to carry out an office that becomes increasingly demanding," Conlon said. "He has been a steady and calm presence in the face of tumult in the world. He has persevered in Blessed John Paul II’s determination to confront the scandal of child abuse in the church."
Benedict shocked the world by saying he no longer had the mental and physical strength to cope with his ministry, in an announcement that left his aides "incredulous" and will make him the first pontiff to step down since the Middle Ages.
The German-born pope, 85, admired as a hero by conservative Roman Catholics and viewed with suspicion by liberals, told cardinals in Latin that his strength had deteriorated recently. He will step down on Feb. 28 and the Vatican expects a new Pope to be chosen by the end of March.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope had not decided to resign because of "difficulties in the papacy" and the move had been a surprise, indicating that even his inner circle was unaware that he was about to quit.
A priest at St. Peter's Church in the Loop said the news is "surprising but not terrifying," saying it will allow the church to continue to renew itself.
“It’s a new beginning and a chance for new energy in the church,” said the Rev. Ed Shea. "This is good news.”
The selection of a new pope will offer the church the chance to continue its emergence into the “the modern light, the modern world,” Shea said.
It will also provide a chance to choose a pope from Africa or South America, he said, to reflect the growth of the church on those continents.
“I was shocked, like everybody else,” Father Ed Shea said. “It kind of surprised me that we didn’t know about it ahead of time.”
As worshipers left a morning mass at St. Peter’s this morning, several said the pope’s announcement had caught them completely by surprise.
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