By STEVE EIGHINGER
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Dave Cawthon's reaction was similar to many local Catholics when hearing Monday that Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down.
"I don't think anyone expected it," Cawthon said. "I had a feeling of shock, sadness ... and excitement. I'm excited about what changes the new pope might have (in mind)."
The 85-year-old German-born pope said he will leave his position Feb. 28. A new pope is expected to be chosen by the end of March.
Nick Steinkamp, coordinator of the Great River Teens Encounter Christ program, said he first became aware of Benedict's decision while he was on Facebook.
"It was quite a shock," Steinkamp said. "I think he'll be remembered for wanting to get the church more back to the roots of Catholicism, which it may have gotten away from."
Benedict succeeded John Paul, one of history's most popular pontiffs. Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected to the papacy April 19, 2005 when he was 78 -- 20 years older than John Paul when he was elected.
Benedict ruled over what was described as a slower-paced, more cerebral and less impulsive Vatican.
The last pope universally recognized to have abdicated was Celestine V, who was elected in July 1294 -- 719 years ago -- and gave up the job five months later after feeling that he was being manipulated by the King of Sicily and Naples. He was declared a saint in 1313.
During a period of division known as the Great Western Schism, from 1378-1415, there were three rival claimants to the papacy. The legitimate pope, Gregory XII, abdicated to make way for an undisputed pope.
During Benedict's time as pope, the church was stained by numerous sexual abuse scandals linked to priests around the world.
Monsignor Mike Kuse of the Quincy Deanery said he admired Benedict for challenging church leaders in all countries to bring an end to the sexual abuse problem.
"We have to do something," Kuse said.
Kuse called Benedict "courageous" for realizing he needed to step down, because he longer had the stamina needed for the position.
"I admire him for keeping up the pace of John Paul," Kuse said. "Now, he will have the time to relax, read and write. He can still contribute to the church."
The pope told the cardinals that to govern "... both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, successor of Saint Peter."
Benedict also referred to "today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith."
Benedict was the first German pope in about 1,000 years and the second non-Italian in a row. He traveled regularly, making about four foreign trips a year.
Kuse said he expected the next pope to be a younger man and not necessarily European.
"The next pope could come from South America or Africa," Kuse said. "That is a possibility."
The Rev. John Doctor of Quincy University agrees with Kuse.
"Those are the areas where the church is really growing at this point," Doctor said. "(A pope from one of those regions) would make sense and would bring a new perspective to the church. Most of the former popes have come from western Europe."
Cindy Stephens, lay director for the Quincy Cursillo retreat program, is another who expects a younger man to be elected the next pontiff.
"I'm hoping for a younger pope, someone with fresh ideas that are needed in today's world -- definitely someone below 70," she said.
In recent months, reports indicated the pope has looked increasingly frail in public, sometimes being helped to walk by those around him.
"His health problems were more serious than we had been led to believe," Stephens said.
Before he was elected pope, Benedict was known by such critical epithets as "God's rottweiler" because of his stern stand on theological issues.
"He was (the kind of pope) that we needed at the time we needed him, but I see the next pope being a young man and one we will see more of in the United States," Cawthon said.
Members of the College of Cardinals will soon gather and vote up to four times a day until they've elected a new pontiff. Cardinals are not required to be bishops, but in practice they are. Potential popes are referred to, informally, as papabile.
Workers construct a special chimney in the room where the cardinals will gather. The chimney is connected to a stove where they burn their used ballots. Chemicals added to the ballots color the smoke, which signals how the votes are proceeding. White smoke means a pope has been elected. Black smoke means no pope -- yet.
"This is an exciting time for the church and those of the Catholic faith," Kuse said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.