By Julian Pecquet - 02/12/13 01:23 AM EST
Catholic lawmakers expressed surprise and sadness on Monday at Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down at the end of the month, the first pope to willingly resign in more than 600 years.
The lawmakers unanimously praised his decision to put the church’s interests first. And they fondly remembered Benedict’s 2008 visit to the United States, when he met with then-President George W. Bush at the White House and visited Ground Zero in New York.
“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.”
A number of Washington leaders — including President Obama — reminisced about meeting Benedict at the Vatican.
“On behalf of Americans everywhere, Michelle and I wish to extend our appreciation and prayers to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Michelle and I warmly remember our meeting with the Holy Father in 2009, and I have appreciated our work together over these last four years,” Obama said.
“The Church plays a critical role in the United States and the world, and I wish the best to those who will soon gather to choose His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s successor,” Obama said.
Benedict, the deeply conservative former chief of doctrine at the Vatican, was never as popular as his predecessor, John Paul II — the second-longest-serving pope at 26 years — and saw his papal reign hampered by the church’s sex abuse scandal.
He also tussled with political leaders in the United States, publicly criticizing the war in Iraq before he became pope and denouncing abortion rights when he met then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at the Vatican in 2009, during the U.S. debate on healthcare reform.
Republican lawmakers were particularly laudatory on Monday, while some prominent Democratic Catholics remained silent.
“Pope Benedict XVI has been a great spiritual leader,” Pelosi said Monday. “Before His Holiness’ triumphant visit to the United States, he stated that the ‘world has greater need of hope than ever: hope for peace, for justice, and for freedom.’ That was his message to America; that has been his message to the world.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) tweeted that “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.), a possible 2016 presidential contender, praised Benedict for putting the Catholic Church first.
“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.), a graduate of Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, issued a statement saying he was “shocked” by the news.
“Like most Catholics throughout the world, I was surprised and saddened to hear the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation,” Grimm said. “For seven years, he served honorably as our holy pontiff, seeking to reawaken Christianity throughout the world.”
Catholics make up the single largest religious denomination in the 113th Congress, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, with 163 members (136 in the House, 27 in the Senate).
“One sign of a great leader is knowing when to step down,” Grimm said. “While we are shocked by this news, I commend Pope Benedict for putting the future of the Catholic Church before all else, and today I join Catholics around the world in praying for his health and well-being.”
Grimm singled out Benedict’s decision last year to elevate New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan into the College of Cardinals as a “gift” that “has lifted the spirits of Catholics and non-Catholics throughout New York and the world, and renewed the faith of many.”
“If it were up to me to pick the next pope,” Grimm said, “Cardinal Dolan would have my vote!”
In a letter in Latin delivered Monday to the church council, Benedict said he was too old and tired to continue serving in his role after less than eight years on the job.
“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 said. “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.”
— Updated at 8:23 p.m.