LEADING East Lancashire Roman Catholics have reacted with shock to the sudden retirement of Pope Benedict XVI.

They praised the 85-year-old, who will quit at the end of this month after nearly eight years, for recognising his age made continuing unwise.

The Vatican expects a new Pope to be elected before Easter after the first papal resignation since 1415.

Pope Benedict said: “Due to an advanced age, I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

Father Jim McCartney, founder of the Thomas Project and priest of Sacred Heart and St Anne’s RC Churches in Blackburn, said: “It’s come as an immense shock.

“I thought that he would continue to the end, but it is says a lot about him that he put the needs of the Church first.”

Monsignor Terence Brain, Roman Catholic Bishop of Salford, said: “This is unexpected news, but the Holy Father will not have made this decision without much prayer and reflection.”

Greg Pope, former Hyndburn MP and head of parliamentary relations for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said: “In common with the great majority of Catholics I am extremely surprised. It is without precedent since medieval times for a Pope to abdicate so we are in uncharted waters.

“I think he will be remembered as a great Pope.”

Michael Wright, head of St Augustine’s RC High School, Billington, said: “This came as a total shock. Pope Benedict’s actions illustrate his humility. It is clear that he is worried about his ability to fulfil the demands of the role in light of his failing health.”

Father Brian Kealey, priest of Christ the King RC Church, Burnley, said: “The Pope has served the church faithfully for a great many years. He has had the sensitivity and intelligence to realise the limitations that come with tiredness of old age.”

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Lancaster Michael Campbell said: “The news was a shock and a cause of sadness to many Catholics. We can but admire his courage in deciding that he no longer possesses the physical and mental strength to continue.”

The leader of Lancashire’s Anglicans John Goddard, Bishop of Burnley and Acting Bishop of Blackburn, said: “I was surprised. It must have been a very difficult decision to make. It is undoubtedly a brave decision based on his ailing health and a personal acknowledgement of what this means for his ability to fulfil the role effectively.”