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Local Catholics are reacting with sadness and reverence to the news today that Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, will resign at the end of the month.
Outside the early mass at St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church in Foggy Bottom, Catholics were just learning of the announcement, which was confirmed by NPR and other news services just after 6 p.m.
"I'm just shocked. I didn't know anything about it. I never even knew he had such a thought in his head," said one woman who didn't give her name.
"I think it's a sad day for Catholics, he's a very beloved figure," said Brian, who asked that his last name not be used. "I think he's leaving because he must think that somebody a little more vigorous than him should take over for him, and I think there's something respectable in that."
Another churchgoer outside St. Stephen's noted that the pope "deserves" a chance to relax after his long career.
"He deserves a fine and quiet retirement," said Dan, who didn't give a last name.
Local members of the clergy also reacted with mixed feelings. One nun at the the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast D.C. this morning said she admires the pontiff's discernment in making this decision.
"I'm sure it was a difficult decision, but I think he sets a wonderful example," said Sister Marion. "He is getting toward the end of his life. I admire that he realizes that there's a difficulty in not being able to serve the way and the manner in which he feels he should and therefore I think it's wonderful that he had the courage to do that."
Monsignor Robert Trisco, professor emeritus at Catholic University of America, was also at the basilica this morning, and pointed out that a pope abdicating is a rather unusual event.
"We have to go back to the 15th century for the last case in which a pope abdicated and that was not entirely freely," Trisco said.
Pope Benedict cited health reasons and the desire to see the church move forward, perhaps under more vigorous leadership, as the reason for his resignation.
"I think it shows that he recognizes that the papacy is not a dignity that he has to cling to until the end of his life if he's incapable of carrying out the functions that are associated with the office," Trisco said. "So it's a sign of his honesty and his humility."
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