Pope shows 'great courage'
The three most senior figures in the Catholic Church in England and Wales have paid tribute to Benedict XVI after the Pontiff announced he was leaving office on grounds of age and infirmity.
The Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and leader of Catholics in England and Wales, called on "people of faith" to pray for the 85-year-old Pontiff.
"Pope Benedict's announcement today has shocked and surprised everyone," he said.
"Yet, on reflection, I am sure many will recognise it to be a decision of great courage and characteristic clarity of mind and action.
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"The Holy Father recognises the challenges facing the Church and that 'strength of mind and body are necessary' for his tasks of governing the Church and proclaiming the Gospel."
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who retired as Archbishop of Westminster in 2009, said: "My reaction was one of surprise and then gratitude for his service and leadership of the Church over the past seven years in troubled times.
"He has been a great teacher."
The Most Rev Peter Smith, Archbishop of Southwark, said he had been "quite taken aback" by the announcement.
"My first thought when I heard, my instinct was it is because of his health and his frailty and he feels it is an incredibly responsible task to be the chief shepherd of the Church on earth," he said.
"I think it shows great wisdom, sensitivity and humility."
The Pope will resign on February 28, the first to do so in nearly 600 years.
The Most Rev Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, said: "It was with a heavy heart but complete understanding that we learned of Pope Benedict's declaration of his decision to lay down the burden of ministry as Bishop of Rome, an office which he has held with great dignity, insight and courage."
Up to 120 cardinals, aged under 80 and from all over the world, will vote to choose his successor.
Only one British cardinal, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, 74, from Scotland, is eligible to vote in the conclave.
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, who turned 80 in August, will take part in the discussions to elect the Pope's successor, but will not be eligible to cast a vote on grounds of his age.
The last pope to resign was Gregory XII, in 1415, as part of a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.