Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation Monday shocked everyone, with only top Vatican officials knowing of his plans to step down.
“We did have fair warning, but at the same time since it is something that hasn’t happened in centuries, it always does comes as a surprise,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told TODAY over the telephone.
Benedict, who is months away from turning 86, announced he will step down at the end of the month because of health reasons. He will be the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years. He made the announcement through a statement released by the Vatican.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, said he received the news as most of the world did early Monday morning.
“I’m as startled as the rest of you and as anxious to find out exactly what’s going on,” he told TODAY’s Matt Lauer.
“A couple of the top officials have known for quite some time, certainly for several weeks," said Burke. "I was told that just this morning. I only found out a few hours beforehand from the pope’s chief of staff, but the chief of staff had known for a few weeks.”
Burke said while the pontiff has appeared more frail and weak in public, “I don’t think there’s anything severe about his health,” comparing him to his own 90-year-old father who needs the accommodation and consideration of an elder citizen.
“He’s had a little harder time walking, he’s started using the cane,” he said.
Burke said the pope continues to show “great, great intelligence, but clearly, physically, he doesn’t feel up to the job and I think that was somewhat an act of humility to admit that.”
Dolan agreed, expressing great affection for the pope.
“He’s the one who appointed me to you all as archbishop of New York,” said Dolan, who will be among the U.S. cardinals helping to elect the pope’s successor. “I’m wearing the ring he gave me, the cross he gave me, so I feel a particular bond with him.”
But Dolan also acknowledged the unusual circumstance of having a pope resign, saying he would need guidance on what to tell worshipers seeking guidance.
“I’m going to need some coaching here. I don’t exactly know, except for prayer, which I already do a bunch of and need to do more of,” he said.
“Aside from prayer, I don’t know what to do. I’ll await for instructions with everybody else.”