Saskatchewan Catholics are expressing shock at the news Pope Benedict XVI will be stepping down at the end of the month.

The pontiff is 85 and says he is stepping down because of declining health.

However, historically popes have died on the job. Benedict's resignation is the first of its kind in 600 years.

In Saskatoon, parishioners at morning mass at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Parish expressed surprise.

"My first reaction is thinking about Pope John Paul II and how he went out a dying man," said Daniel Pettipas. "I called my mom, and she was like, 'Well Daniel, it's kind of smart, 'cause now someone can serve the Church best, right?'"

One Catholic leader in the province, Abbot Peter Novecosky, an editor with the Prairie Messenger newspaper, says he didn't see the resignation coming.

He noted, however, that the stage was already set for something like this to happen.

For years, bishops have been barred from serving past the age of 75. Thirty years ago, canon law was changed to make it possible for popes to resign.

"I think now, with the resignation of Pope Benedict, it'll be easier for future popes to resign when a good reason for it comes up," he said. "And he's given his reason as being in poor health to carry on his responsibilities as head of the Church."

Father Nestor Gregoire, pastor at St. Joseph's, said it's not as shocking as some people might think.

"I think the whole church is ready to handle this, you know?" he said. "Perhaps we're witnessing a new tradition in a church that has been slowing evolving for more than 2000 years."