Pope Benedict XVI Steps Down

The pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI, announced Monday that he will abdicate his position on Feb. 28. His resignation has shocked Catholics and the rest of the world, leaving many with questions.

Benedict, 85, said he is resigning due to "old age and deteriorating health," ABC News reported. Benedict will be the first pope in six centuries to give up his position before death. The previous pope, John Paul II, served for 26 years until his death in 2005.

This break in tradition has caused speculation regarding why Benedict chose to withdraw from the position. His short tenure included several controversies, including a string of sexual abuse scandals in the clergy and his decision to revoke the excommunication of four bishops who denied the existence of Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. His papacy was marked by the enforcement of conservative policies that some deemed regressive. 

"It is a sad day for Catholics, and certainly a bizarre one," said Father Brian Butch, who served as a priest for over 20 years in Monmouth County. "But I wish him well and look forward to see who will be our next pope."

The pope was elected by his peers-all cardinals under the age of 80 were qualified to vote-seven years ago after the death of the popular John Paul II. It took two weeks for the papal conclave to elect Benedict, who formerly identified as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from Germany.

There was some initial scrutiny involving his appointment due to his service in the German army during WWII as well as trepidation that his papacy would sever ties with members of the Jewish faith. However, research proved that he was drafted into the army and did not volunteer. In fact, he deserted the German army in 1945 and was captured by American troops and detained as a prisoner of war.

In his resignation announcement, Benedict said in Latin that after examining his conscience "before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise" of the papacy. He had been the oldest pope, at 78, to be elected since 1730.

"I'm surprised," said junior Joseph Reale. "I feel it was a shock to many. If he thinks he can't currently run it, how can we assess how he has been the leader over the last few years?"

Father Bill Sheridan of Mahwah's Church of the Immaculate Conception said that Benedict's resignation will set a good precedent for popes of the future who struggle with their health.

"It takes a great deal of humility-he's putting the needs of the Church before his needs," he said.

Speculation on who will fill the pontiff's shoes is growing. Some of the names mentioned hail from South America, Africa and Canada, a change from the typical Eurocentric leadership. Even Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has been mentioned by his peers, and would be the first American pope if elected. The Vatican has stated that they hope a pope will be elected by March 31, Easter Sunday.

In accordance with one of Benedict's policy revisions, the papal conclave requires a two-thirds-plus-one majority vote to elect a new pontiff, the success of which is traditionally signified with the release of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney.