Benedict's decision to step down "says to me he is a very humble and honest person," Wuerl added. "His love for the church is such that he has concluded it would be better not to try to lead this huge flock without the full strength of all of his energies."
Catholics attending 7 a.m. Mass at St. Matthews Cathedral in downtown Washington agreed. "If he's feeling weak or frail, well, [retiring] is such a loving and caring decision on his part," said Tara Shaughnessy, 23, of the District.
During his eight-year tenure, Benedict has tried to guide the church through troubling sexual abuse and financial scandals while seeking to reinforce conservative doctrine among the global ranks of more than 1 billion faithful.
Liberal Catholics bemoaned his promotion of conservative bishops who believe the church will hold together best if its teachings are communicated as eternal and unchanging. They bristled at a church crackdown on the largest group of U.S. nuns after the nuns wrote and lectured about homosexuality and contraception.
Traditional Catholics, however, have celebrated Benedict's focus on orthodoxy.
"If you don't sell full-throttle Catholicism, people are not going to buy it. Everyone knows the whole package is more compelling and interesting than some sort of Catholic hors d'oeuvres that leave you hungry," said George Weigel, who has written multiple books on the church and the pope.
Quiet and soft-spoken, especially in comparison to his gregarious predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Benedict nevertheless maintained a vigorous travel and speaking schedule, visiting Lebanon as recently as September and, in December, launching the first ever papal Twitter account. He was 78 when he was elected pope in 2005, the oldest person chosen to head the church since the 18th century.