Religious and political leaders have paid tribute to Pope Benedict XVI, who announced on Monday that he would resign his position. Angela Merkel called him "one of the most significant religious thinkers of our time."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday that Pope Benedict XVI had her "utmost respect" for his decision to resign his post as head of the Roman Catholic Church.
"The pope's words will accompany me for a long time to come," Merkel said, praising Benedict as "deeply educated, with a sense for history's great correlations and a lively interest in the processes of European unification."
Merkel also alluded to the pope's efforts in bringing the world's different faiths closer, saying he always knew that such a process would only work through interdenominational and interfaith dialogue.
"And he led that dialogue," Merkel, herself the daughter of a protestant pastor, said.
The state premier of Benedict's Bavarian birthplace, Horst Seehofer, said the pope's decision deserved "the greatest respect even though I personally deeply regret it."
The 85-year-old German-born pontiff, formerly known as Josef Alois Ratzinger, said he would step down on February 28 - he will be the first pontiff to resign since Gregory XII in 1415.
"I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry," Benedict XVI said, speaking in Latin from a hall in his residence near St Peter's Square.
His elder brother Georg Ratzinger said that doctors had advised the pontiff against taking any more trans-Atlantic trips.
"His age is weighing on him," Georg Ratzinger, 89, told the DPA news agency on Monday, adding that he was forewarned about the coming announcement. "My brother would like more rest at his age."
Spiritual leader to over one billion
French President Francois Hollande said that Benedict's decision was "eminently respectable," but said that the Republic of France had no specific comment on a church matter. "This is a humane decision and one tied to a desire that must be respected."
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the pope would be missed as a "spiritual leader to millions." Cameron also praised the pope for working "tirelessly" to improve ties with predominantly Anglican Britain.
A prolific, conservative theologian, Benedict was a more low-key pontiff than his predecessor John Paul II. In apparent recognition of his academic credentials, John Paul chose Benedict in 1981 as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position as the "protector" of the Catholic faith that he performed for more than 25 years.
He also chaired the conclave of the College of Cardinals in which he was elected pope in April 2005. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said on Monday that he expected another conclave to be held within 15 or 20 days of the pontiff's February 28 resignation.
Benedict's almost eight years in office were often turbulent. Mistreatment of children either by priests or by staff in church-run schools dominated the headlines in his earlier tenure, while his conservative statements sometimes courted controversy with believers of other faiths. Merkel even criticized the pope for his move to reverse the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson.
A spokesman for Israel's Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger told the AFP news agency said ties between Judaism and Catholicism "became much closer" during Benedict's time as pope, bringing about "a decrease in anti-Semitism around the world."
In recent months, the so-called Vatileaks scandal garnered much attention, when the pope's butler leaked sensitive Vatican documents to the media.
msh/pfd (AFP, AP, dpa, epd, Reuters)