News of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is being met with shock, sadness and respect, around the world and locally in Edmonton.

The spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church announced on Monday that he would resign at the end of February.

Edmonton’s Archbishop Richard Smith says the pope’s resignation was completely unexpected.

“It was a shock,” Smith said. “Quite a way to begin the day, I must say.”

Smith says the whole world was caught off guard when the Vatican issued the statement of resignation from the Pontiff.

The announcement – that the pope is no longer able to fulfill his duties as head of the Catholic Church due to age and ailing health – stunned cardinals around the word.

"After having repeatedly examined my 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 Petrine ministry," the 85-year-old pope said.

"In order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary -- strengths which in the last few months, have deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

While Smith was surprised at the resignation, he says it was clearly a decision the Benedict had been thinking of for quite some time.

“Obviously he did not make this decision lightly,” Smith said.

“Nobody understands the role of the pope from the inside like the pope would. Only he knows the burdens that he carries. And only he knows his physical limitations.”

A teaching moment for the world

Local Catholics CTV News spoke to Monday, say they respect the pope’s decision.

“Rather than becoming frailer, he’s decided to step down. I think it’s a courageous decision on his part,” said Stephen Lindop.

“If he wants to resign, why not?” said Elsie Johnson. “Why drop dead and struggle with it? I’m sure it’s not easy when your health isn’t up to par.”

“It’s a thoughtful move by the pope, I think,” said Doug Roche.

Roche, a former Edmonton MP, points to the pope’s busy schedule – which is bound to get even busier with Lent beginning on Wednesday.

He believes the pope’s decision will help the church in the long run.

“I’d say it was a teaching moment for the world, not to hang on beyond your own capabilities,” Roche said. “He probably did a favour for the church.”

First pope to resign in nearly 600 years

Benedict became pope in 2005, when Pope John Paul passed away.

His decision to resign marks the first time in nearly 600 years that a sitting pontiff has left his position voluntarily.

The last pope to resign voluntarily was Pope Gregory XII in 1415.

Now Benedict’s decision sets the stage for the election of a new pope in time for Easter.

More than 100 cardinals will vote for Benedict’s replacement during a process known as a conclave.

Cardinal Thomas Collins, of the Archdiocese of Toronto, and former archbishop of Edmonton, is one of three Canadians voting for the new people.

He calls the selection a profound mission.

“Normally popes have gone ‘till the death’ and this is a change,” Collins said.

“We pray to the Holy Spirit to guide us…The whole church gathers together at such a time in prayer for the College of Cardinals and this most profound mission we have, which is to elect the successor to (Saint) Peter.”

With files from Susan Amerongen and