Pope Benedict XVI intention to resign due to poor health at the end of the month has caught Edmonton Catholics by surprise.

"We are now witnessing the departure of a man who has exhibited extraordinary leadership and has given remarkable teachings addressing all the issues of the day so for me personally and for local Catholics, and Catholics universally, it's certainly a sad moment to see him leave this office," said Most Rev. Richard Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton.

Smith met with the Pope many times and said his greatest memory of the Pope is his graciousness.


Pope Benedict XVI will become the first pontiff to resign in almost 600 years when he steps down on Feb. 28. (Isabella Bonotto/Associated Press)

"He has greeted me so warmly and attentively when I spoke with him and people that have met him say the same," he said. "You're the only person on the planet he is totally focussed upon."

Smith said he last met with Pope Benedict in November and saw firsthand the Pope's declining health.

"I sympathize with his decision," he said. "Clearly his love for the Church and his shepherd's heart have led him to take this step, which he believes in his conscience to be necessary for the good of the Church." 

Pope Benedict was very close to his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who served until the day he died, said Richard Rymarz, a professor specializing in Catholic religious education at St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta.

"He saw him suffer," Rymarz said. "He saw him become incapaciated and I think that may have been a really significant thing in Benedict's decision."

Catholics who attended noon mass at Edmonton's St. Joseph's Basilica were surprised by the news.

"I'm sad about it. I'm sorry for him," said Ophelia Estrada. "But if he has to, then he should."

Anna Linares said she had mixed feelings when she heard the news. While she feels that anyone who agrees to become Pope should stay with it, she is also sympathetic.

"He is quite old and he is ill so we have to be understanding," she said.

A Canadian, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, has been flagged as a possible successor to Pope Benedict.  Ouellet has a connection to Edmonton — he was the rector of St. Joseph's Seminary from 1994 to 1997.

"It would be nice to see someone from our continent ... to take a role of authority in the church," said Sharon Ryan outside St. Joseph's Basilica. "I think it would be fresh."

The selection process for a successor is expected to take place in mid-March.

With files from the Canadian Press