BY ANNE STANTON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY-- Area Catholic leaders and congregants expressed shock at Pope Benedict XVI's unexpected resignation, but lauded his decision as an act of humility and wisdom.
"It hasn't happened in about 600 years," said Monsignor Frank Murphy of the Diocese of Gaylord. "He kept a steady ship, but recognized that he's starting to run out of gas. I know at 72, I'm not as peppy as I was at 25."
Murphy described the pope as a "good, prayerful holy man."
That's the best compliment you can give anybody," Murphy said.
The 85-year-old pope said Monday he would resign Feb. 28 during a meeting of Vatican cardinals.
"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," he told the cardinals.
Monsignor Edwin Thome, 84, and soon to be 85, said he himself has been called the "forever priest." He has a long history in the Traverse City area and now serves at the St. Joseph parish on Old Mission Peninsula.
"All I have is 300 families. I feel a little lax," he joked. "In the church, we look upon ours as a way of life, and not as a job to be filled. So even after the pope retires, he's still going to remain a bishop in retirement."
Heather Maxson of Traverse City said she was "absolutely shocked" at the announcement, but recognized that serving as head shepherd of about 1.2 billion Catholics would be taxing at age 85.
"He is a very gentle, humble man, and I think his resignation speaks to that," Maxson said. "It takes courage and a lot of humility to resign as a pope."
She said the pope encouraged a stronger Catholic evangelism, even suggesting Facebook to draw others into the faith, including family members and friends who have fallen away.
"He started a twitter account a few months back," she said. "He was really trying to reach the youth."
Maxson said she'll miss the pope's clarity of writing and words of hope.
Father Don Geyman, the vocation director for the Gaylord diocese, praised the pope's decision to resign as a generous move since the church requires strong leadership.
He praised the pope's "year of faith" undertaking to encourage Catholics to hone in on their faith. The pope also revisited the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which recognized the importance of every church member and their call to holiness and capacity to transform society, he said.
Mike Buell, superintendent of Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools, admired the pope as a "real ambassador for Catholic schools."
"He just really believed that Catholic schools were a place to encounter the living God and Jesus Christ, and that schools could reveal his transforming love," Buell said. "I just appreciated where he placed the importance of Catholic education within the church."
Bishop Bernard A. Hebda of the Gaylord Diocese is in Nicaragua this week and unavailable for comment.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.
Benedict called his choice "a decision of great importance for the life of the church."
The move sets the stage for the Vatican to hold a conclave to elect a new pope by mid-March, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed.
There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner as was the case when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.