The news that Pope Benedict XVI plans to resign at the end of February has caught the world off-guard, notably people in his home country of Germany. But Chancellor Angela Merkel said she respects the difficult decision.

"If the Pope himself has now, after thorough consideration, come to the conclusion that he no longer has sufficient strength to exercise his office, that earns my very highest respect," she said.

"In our time of ever-lengthening life, many people will be able to understand how the Pope as well has to deal with the burdens of aging."

Pope Benedict 'reached out his hand to Jews as well as Muslims.'—Angela Merkel, German chancellor

Merkel, who is Protestant, praised Benedict for his efforts to promote dialogue within the Catholic Church, and with other Christian denominations and religions.

She said he "reached out his hand to Jews as well as Muslims," and was a shepherd to billions of people around the world. Merkel said she will never forget the Pope’s speech to the German Bundestag in September 2011.

"He described to us our sole purpose and main task as politicians, and that is to serve the Lord and to fight injustice. … Those words of the Pope will remain with me forever," she said, adding he is one of the most respected religious thinkers of our time.

Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, was a widely respected theologian as Cardinal of Munich and then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. When he became Pope in 2005, Catholics in Germany celebrated the first pontiff from Germany in almost 500 years.

The tabloid daily Bild famously ran the words "Wir sind Papst!," or "We're the pope," on its front cover.

Today, the head of the Conference of Catholic Bishops said Pope Benedict is a "shining example" of someone living out his love for the church.

Pope Benedict will be remembered for building bridges between belief and reason, between different denominations and religions, and even bridges to God "in order to pave the way for peace to come into this world and to bring about growth and prosperity for the Kingdom of God," Archbishop Dr. Robert Zollitsch wrote in a statement.

At St. Hedwig's Cathedral in central Berlin, parishioners such as Tassor Wanner went to a special mass to pray for Benedict and his successor.

"The whole civilization of Europe and the western world is based on Christian traditions and values. … The church is, and remains, a very important voice," he said.

But others have mixed feelings about the outgoing Pope.

"I think the rule that only men can become priests … that's one example that for me the church doesn't have a real place in society," said Griet Lievois.

"I think it's difficult to be after someone like John Paul II who did a lot," her sister, Els Lievois, added. "(Benedict) was a colourless Pope. I don't think we're going to remember."

Others feel he deepened the divide between conservatives and reformers in the German Church, and between the church and an increasingly multicultural society. But Stefan Foerner, the spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Berlin, doesn't see it that way.

CBC in Berlin

Karen Pauls is in Berlin to enhance CBC's European coverage at a time when the continent is struggling through one of the most unpredictable periods in recent history. Germany's prosperity is being closely watched as the ongoing fiscal crisis puts the European Union under great strain.

Pauls has covered national affairs in Canada for CBC Radio, and was previously posted in London and Washington.

Follow her on Twitter @karenpaulscbc.

"He is not a Pope for Germans, he is a Pope for the whole Catholic Church," Foerner said.

"Popes are conservative. He has to conserve what is the important part of the Christian faith. He can't say, 'Hey, I change my mind.' He's not free to do so."

Foerner also argue that Pope Benedict did a lot to address the crisis in the Church.

"We have a credibility problem. People don't believe us what we say on Sundays in church because they know about sexual abuse of Catholic priests. We reacted already to this crisis but we have to go on. Every crisis may be a new start to find new access to people, to convince them what's important for us," he said.

Throughout German society, the cradle of the Reformation, the Catholic Church may not be as relevant as it once was, but Davy de Laeter says a new Pope could change that.

"Maybe if they take the opportunity when they choose the next Pope. Last time, they clearly didn't take the opportunity," he said.