From the church pews in Scarsdale to the Catholic school classrooms in New Rochelle, news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation from the papacy Monday was greeted with surprise, and throughout the Hudson Valley, praise was heaped upon the pope for his humble act.

"It is a tremendous act of humility," said Elena Procario-Foley, chairwoman of religious studies at Iona College in New Rochelle. "It is an extraordinary moment."

The 85-year-old pope told a gathering of Vatican cardinals in Rome that "because of advanced age," he lacks the strength to fulfill his duties and that on Feb. 28, he will step down as head of the church.

Benedict emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope -- the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide -- requires "both strength of mind and body."

The pope will become the first pontiff in almost 600 years to resign.

"His whole life is the church, and he wants to do the right thing for the church," Msgr. Hugh McManus of Our Lady of Fatima in Scarsdale said after hearing the news.

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The pope is no stranger to some Hudson Valley residents. In 2008, he visited St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers to bless disabled children and pray with some 20,000 young people at a rally.

The German theologian, who in 2005, at age 78, was the oldest pope chosen in nearly 300 years, has grown increasingly frail in recent years. The pope now travels to the altar in St. Peter's Basilica on a moving platform to spare him the 100-yard walk down the aisle.

During his leadership, he was forced to deal with decades' worth of sex abuse scandals that have affected the church worldwide. His mission was to reinvigorate the faith in Europe and throughout the world.

The announcement sets the stage for a conclave in March to elect a new leader for the church. His resignation already has sparked speculation about his successor.

"Of course, it's terribly exciting when you have an election for a pope. There's all sorts of speculation," Procario-Foley said. She noted that her students discussed the historic moment in class Monday morning and also will follow the developments closely as a new pope is chosen.

Procario-Foley said New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan certainly has the gregarious personality that might be an asset to the church's current task of reinvigorating the faith.

On NBC's "Today" show Monday, Dolan casually bantered with host Matt Lauer, displaying his comfort with the press.

"I'm as startled as the rest of you and as anxious to find out exactly what's going on," Dolan said.

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Msgr. Joseph Giandurco, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Suffern, was with Dolan on Monday morning just as the news of Benedict's resignation was making its way across the world. Dolan was dedicating a chapel within the Rockland County parish.

Giandurco had met with Benedict many times and has known Dolan for many years. As to whether Dolan is a candidate for pope, Giandurco said the archbishop himself said it's not likely.

"He thinks it's improbable," Giandurco said.

Dolan is not generally considered a front-runner for the papacy because he comes from the United States. Given half of the world's Catholics live in the Southern Hemisphere, there again will be arguments for a pope to come from the developing world.

Charles Zola, director of The Catholic and Dominican Institute at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, said the cardinals likely will look for a dynamic scholar who can invigorate more young people in the faith. Zola would like to see a pope with the energy and popularity of Pope John Paul II when he was selected, but also someone hailing from Africa, Asia or South America.

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"It would speak to the universality of the church," Zola said.

There are currently 118 cardinals under age 80 who are eligible to vote in the conclave, 67 of whom were appointed by Benedict, giving the pope great influence in the selection of his successor. A two-thirds majority is required to elect a new pope.


With The Associated Press