On Monday, the Vatican announced that, for the first time in 600 years, the pope will resign at the end of the month. Pope Benedict XVI, for reasons of poor health and old age, has said he will step down Feb. 28.
Reactions around the world have been swift and varied. Many who respect the church are congratulatory toward the pope, while others have expressed disdain.
As Catholic numbers dwindle in Europe and North America the growth of the church in Africa and elsewhere has led to calls for the next pope to be selected from the "global South." That call was ignored last time around when Benedict XVI replaced John Paul II.
Perhaps this time that tradition too will be broken.
Many ordinary Catholics appeared stunned on Monday.
Italian TV reported bemused tourists and pilgrims in St. Peter's square. "I'm really surprised," one Spanish speaking woman told RAI News. "This is unprecedented, but we must respect his decision."
“He has acknowledged man’s weakness," a nun called Sister Agnese told TG24, an Italian news channel. "He is a great man, a man of faith.”
Tributes to the Pope poured in from clergy and world leaders.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the decision reflects the pope's "profound sense of duty to the church, and also his deep appreciation of the unique pressures of spiritual leadership in the modern world."
In Britain, there were expressions of sadness and support for a pontiff who won admirers during a state visit in 2010.
"I salute his courage and his decision," said Archbishop Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, praising the pope for admitting he is too frail to meet "challenges" facing the church.
In Benedict's homeland Germany, where nearly one-third of people are Catholic, Chancellor Angela Merkel thanked the pope for his work and said his resignation deserved "the absolute highest respect." She said he "remains one of the most important religious thinkers of our time."
French President Francois Hollande greeted the pope's move with a low-key response, describing it as “eminently respectable.”
Though officially secular, France is traditionally seen as a Catholic country with more than 60 percent of its citizens claiming an affinity with the church. French TV showed people in tears at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. However, recent research showed fewer than 3 percent practice the religion in France.
Even in Korea, where 10 percent of the population is Catholic, the news ripples. Shin Choon-ja, 70, a devout Catholic living in a suburb of Seoul, had just heard the news Monday evening.
"I'm so sad," Shin said. "The pope prayed for all Catholics and we prayed for him, but he's resigning. He did a lot of good things bringing the church around the world."
Not everyone was a fan.
On the streets of the UK, where one in 12 people are Catholic, there were shrugs of indifference from non-believers and outbursts of hostility towards the Roman Catholic church for its perceived intolerance towards gender and sexual equality and the exposure of past abuse scandals.
"Because of the child abuse thing, yeah?" asked music student Nat Saunderson, an atheist, on hearing news of the resignation. "Well he should have resigned because of that. Not that whoever replaces him will make the church any better."
Consultant Terri Stanford, 36, who calls herself a non-denominational, non-practicing Christian, expressed hope that the next pope would be more tolerant on homosexuality and gender equality.
"Perhaps a younger pope could shake things up a bit. I doubt anything will change though, too many people would be upset," Stanford said.
Associations representing victims of child abuse by priests said he failed to take sufficient action against predators and Muslim representatives said he'd damaged relations with Islam with comments made early in his pontificate.
"The Catholic church now has a chance to return back to the teachings and practices of Pope John Paul II which were of inter-faith work and respect for our respective positions and I hope that once a new pope is elected we actually see our faiths come together,"
Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation think-tank told The Guardian.
Europe, the home of the pope, only accounts for 25 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. Meanwhile, 42 percent of Catholics live in Latin America.
In Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the country's highest-ranking church official, praised Benedict's decision to step down as an act of "humility," but acknowledged the news was "a big surprise."
"The Pope breaks once more with tradition and isn't afraid to tell the world he's too weak and tired to go on with the huge responsibility of governing the Catholic Church," Ortega said in a statement.
Benedict's visit to Cuba in March 2011, a trip timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Cuba's patron saint, The Virgin of Charity of Cobre, endeared him to many Cuban Catholics.
"It was a beautiful visit, and it meant a lot to us," said Margarita Barrios, 35, who had just attended a friend's daughter's confirmation at the Jesus de Miramar cathedral in western Havana. "It was so important to us that he showed deference to the Virgin of Charity, a beloved symbol for all Cubans."
In a country where many have learned to be skeptical of official explanations, some said they had a hard time believing that the pope would choose to step down because of illness.
"Popes don't resign for health reasons," said Rey Valdes, 39. "Look at John Paul II, who had been sick for years, and had been shot in that assassination attempt. He didn't resign."
"There must be another reason," Valdes said.
Rev. Stephen T. Ayres, the vicar at the Old North Church in Boston's North End, believes that Benedict’s decision to step down was a pragmatic one.
“I can certainly understand if you work a job that demanding, I think it’s healthy,” Ayres said. “I think it’s a very legitimate reason to step down, so let’s move onto the politics and who is going to run next.”
Juan Ignacio Gonzalez, archbishop of the diocese covering the Chilean capital Santiago, said Benedict had been full of surprises over the course of his eight-year tenure.
“For me, personally, this is not such a surprise, because he is the pope who has given me the most surprises, for example, confronting the issue of pedophilia, travelling [so much] at his age, pardoning those who have gravely offended him,” the archbishop told Chilean paper La Tercera.
Baltazar Porras, archbishop of the Venezuelan diocese of Merida, said Benedict would be remembered for bowing out gracefully.
“The most common temptation that we face as human beings is to see how we can continue indefinitely in power,” Porras told Venezuelan paper El Universal.
Speculation about Benedict’s successor was not long in coming.
Mexico City mayor, Miguel Angel Mancera Espinosa, tweeted: “Without a doubt the resignation of Benedict XVI is surprising and respectable. In March, the [new] pope will be chosen. They say his successor could be Latin American.”
That view is likely to win wide backing in the region. There has never been a non-European pope. But, in general terms, Catholics in Latin America are known for being particularly devout.
Latin America’s two leading candidates for the papacy are thought to be the Brazilian Odilo Scherer, archbishop of the vast diocese of Sao Paulo, and Leonardo Sandri, an Argentine cardinal who heads the Vatican’s department for “Oriental Churches.”
Claude Scrima, the parochial vicar at the St. Leonard’s Church in Boston’s traditionally Italian and Catholic North End neighborhood.
“I hope that it’s someone from South or Central America,” Scrima said. “It’s my humble opinion, but there’s a whole segment of the Catholic world that we don’t even pay attention to.”
Sandra Chumpitz, a 42-year-old street vendor from Lima, Peru, said she thought the pope did the right thing by resigning. "The other one [John Paul II] should have done the same. He was virtually dying on the job for years," she said.
Taxi driver Jose Garcia, 49, also from Lima, said he thought the next pope should be Latin American.
"There has never been one from here but there are so many Catholics here," Garcia said. "And he needs to find a way to stop losing Catholics to the evangelicals. The new pope has to find a way to make the Church more relevant for ordinary people."
Others wonder if the next pope will come from Africa. At least two Africans are believed to be contenders: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria.
Father Benedict Mahlangu, parish priest of Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, said he thought it was possible an African could be elected pontiff.
"I don't know why they elect someone who is nearly 80," he added. "They should take someone younger, maybe 60."
Pamela Owuor, a Kenyan domestic worker, said she heard about the pope's retirement on the radio. She found it "surprising" and reckoned that "he did a good job."
"It shows a big heart to admit you are tired, you are not able," she said. "Our president can't do that!"
Indeed, for many in Africa, news of the pope's resignation evoked reflections on the political reality at home.
The gist: If the pope's resigning, why can't Mugabe?
"AND WHEN WILL THE 'POLITICAL DINASORS' IN KENYA RETIRE??????????????? [sic]" a reader commented on the website of The Standard newspaper in Kenya.
"Wow! What about good old Uncle Bob down in Zimbabwe?" wrote a Daily Nation reader, also in Kenya.
"President Mugabe should emulate the pope and Mandela and resign as advanced age is a problem to the body though the spirit may be willing," echoed another.
At 88, Mugabe has three years on the Pontiff but is far from the only pensioner in power in Africa. Kenya's outgoing president Mwai Kibaki is 81 and there are host of premieres in their 70s including South Africa's Jacob Zuma, Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos and, arguably since his real age is a matter of contention, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni.
On Twitter, with "Pope" trending in South Africa, talk of a potential black pontiff was a hot topic.
"I hope the next Pope will be a black person for a change," tweeted Nobenguni Mzamo (@nguniem1) from Queenstown in South Africa's Eastern Cape.
But this drew pessimistic responses: "That won't happen," replied Lethu Kwedana (@Beekay_iv). "Ever," added Lance Zion Mosiea (@HeirOfZion).
"Again, talk of a black #Pope, give it up people, not in the Roman #Catholic Church," wrote @SKKhumalo.
John Nzomo, handyman and lifelong Catholic living in Kenya said he thought the pope's old age and poor health was a problem. "I think he should go and rest," Nzomo said, adding that as a leader of the church the pope had been "perfect."
Asked whether, perhaps, it was time that an African was made Pope he laughed and shook his head. "The job is too big, they can't give it to an African, it is always whites, not Africans."
Of course there were the jokesters.
"Will he now be known as Ex Benedict?" one South African netizen quipped.
And like many jokes, often there was a kernel of truth.
Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist whose controversial book "The God Delusion" has riled religious groups, offered the departing pontiff some derision via Twitter.
"I feel sorry for the Pope and all old Catholic priests. Imagine having a wasted life to look back on and no sex," he wrote.