Although local priests and religious leaders were surprised and saddened to hear of Pope Benedict XVI's historic resignation, they praised his courage and faith in making the rare and difficult decision not to complete his papacy due to health reasons.

The 85-year-old pope, whose resignation takes effect Feb. 28, is the first pontiff to resign since Pope Gregory XII in 1415 amid the Great Western Schism in which three men claimed to be the leader of the Catholic Church.

The Rev. Francis J. Karwacki, pastor of the Church of Our Lady in Mount Carmel, said, "The last pope to resign under similar circumstances was

Pope Celestine V in 1226 because he did not have the stamina needed for his ministry. Pope Benedict is demonstrating a lot of courage to admit that he no longer has the stamina necessary to serve as pope, but I am sure that in his retirement, he will continue to write new books since he is a Bible scholar and a prolific writer."

Sister Margaret Quinn, elementary school principal at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School, was surprised by the pope's resignation, but believes he did a great job in succeeding the very popular Pope John Paul II.

"It's the first time in 600 years a pope has resigned," she said. "He's done a wonderful job following Pope John Paul II. I give him credit for realizing his health won't allow him to serve as pope any longer. I wish him well and I will pray for him and the Catholic Church as it begins the process of selecting a new pope."

The Rev. Martin Kobos, pastor of Mother Cabrini Church, Shamokin, said Pope Benedict XVI's resignation took him by surprise, although he had heard recently from Franciscan friars in Assisi, Italy, who had a recent audience with the pontiff, that he was becoming more frail.

"I think the pope demonstrated a great act of courage and faith in his discernment of how to leave the Catholic Church," Kobos said. "Our prayers and best wishes are with him here in the Catholic community of Mother Cabrini. It's certainly rare for a pope to resign, but the Catholic Church will persevere and follow the procedures in place to elect a new pope."

"Heartbroken" was the word used by the Rev. John A. Szada Jr., pastor of Divine Redeemer Church, Mount Carmel, to describe his feelings about the pope's resignation.

He said, "I think he's one of the most brilliant popes to sit on the throne of St. Peter. I think he was under appreciated and I'm very sad to see him resign."

Szada said he had the privilege of concelebrating Mass with Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 at World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, and Washington, D.C., in April 2008 during the pontiff's visit to the United States.

The Rev. Andrew Stahmer, pastor of Holy Angels Church, Kulpmont, said he was somewhat surprised by the pope's resignation.

"I realize he has been ill and appeared very tired at times," Stahmer said. "But his resignation still surprised me in a sense. I guess his age and the fact that he was carrying a heavy burden as a disciple of Christ led him to resign."

He added, "I believe God inspired him to do what he felt was right. We put everything in God's hands and he will guide us."

The Rev. Al Sceski, pastor of Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Elysburg and chaplain at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School, described the pope as a "very humble, simple and good man."

"I was shocked to hear the news early Monday morning about his historic resignation," Sceski said. "I had great respect for him. He led a simple life and I believe his reputation as a stern disciplinarian was misconstrued at times by the media."

While visiting the Vatican in 1995 to attend a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II, Sceski recalled seeing then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger walking across St. Peter's Square. "Although I never personally met him, he seemed like a very simple person who had a shy smile," he said.

When he was elected the 265th leader of the Church on April 19, 2005, at the age of 78, Pope Benedict XVI was the oldest pope elected in 275 years and the first German in nearly 1,000 years.