WASHINGTON – The announcement by Pope Benedict XVI today that he will resign over health issues – the first time a pope has resigned in 600 years – left American Catholic leaders stumbling for words.

“We are, of course, all surprised today by the announcement of the pope that he will resign at the end of the month,” said Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life.

“Popes have the authority to do this, of course, though it has rarely been exercised.”

While speculation immediately was launched regarding a possible replacement, Pavone focused on what Benedict has done.

“We view the pope’s action here in a positive light, as an expression of his concern and love for the church. He wants the church to have a pope who can fulfill his role with the strength and vigor that the office requires,” said Pavone.

Pavone’s organization is the largest Catholic group dedicated to ending abortion and euthanasia.

“My own interactions with Pope Benedict have been in the arena of his defense of human life, and we at Priests for Life thank him in particular for the ways in which he has continued to announce and implement the church’s pro-life teachings,” he said.

In an interview with WND, Pavone said the resignation was “an act of responsible leader.”

“He signaled to the church … that there is a great stability to the church. He has recalled this and that the teachings remain and has in a beautiful way articulated these positions.”

Pavone noted the church’s expansion in Africa and Latin America, a pursuit the new pope undoubtedly will continue.

He said, too, that a new pope will be “concerned more with the new evangelization” mission than the dynamics of any liberal-conservative tension.

Catholic League President Bill Donohue said the pope’s legacy is secure.

Benedict, he said, “made it clear that religious freedom was not only a God-given right, it was ‘the path to peace.’”

In a posted statement, the organization said Benedict’s “many references to what he called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ were a constant reminder that one of the greatest threats to freedom today is the abandonment of the search for truth.”

The Catholic League noted the pope’s work on reaching out to non-members and his crackdown on priestly sexual abuse.

The pope’s “willingness to step aside comes as a surprise this Monday morning. What is not surprising is his humility,” the statement said. “Indeed, it is one of his most defining characteristics, one that separates him from today’s egocentric public figures.”

Benedict’s resignation letter said: ” 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 author of “From Sabbath to Sunday” spent years at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and explains the “political, social, pagan and Christian” factors that changed “a Holy Day into a holiday.”

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan told CBS he was as startled as the rest of the world.

In a statement, Dolan said Benedict “unified Catholics and reached out to schismatic groups in hopes of drawing them back to the church.”

“More unites us than divides us, he said by word and deed.”

A number of Washington lawmakers who are Catholic express sadness along with their surprise.

In a report in The Hill, House Speaker John Boehner said people were “inspired” by Benedict when he visited the U.S.

“The prayers and gratitude of American Catholics are with Pope Benedict XVI today,” he said. “The Holy Father’s decision displays extraordinary humility and love for the Church, two things that have been the hallmarks of his service.”

Other reaction:

  • Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., tweeted, “With the courage & conscience he’s shown in his tenure, @Pontifex steps down. He will be missed by Catholics and the world’s faith community.”
  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., “Today Pope Benedict XVI displayed the qualities of an excellent leader and a true man of God by putting the interests of the Vatican and the Catholic Church over his own papacy. Since becoming Pope in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI has served the Church honorably, particularly through his work promoting charity across the globe.”
  • Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., “Like most Catholics throughout the world, I was surprised and saddened to hear the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation,” Grimm told The Hill. “For seven years, he served honorably as our holy pontiff, seeking to reawaken Christianity throughout the world.”
  • President Obama said he “appreciated” working with Benedict.

Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, now chairman of Patriot Voices, said, “The news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation comes as quite a surprise to Karen and me. We respect his decision and see it as an example of his great humility, spiritual leadership, and commitment to his faith. We pray for the church, St. Peter and all the Saints, for the church’s leadership, and for the faithful for the work they will do in the coming weeks to elect a new Pope. May God bless and keep Pope Benedict XVI.”

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