The world reacts to pope's decision to retire

Calendars of Pope Benedict XVI and late Pope John Paul II are on sale at a kiosk at the Vatican, Feb. 11, 2013. Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would resign Feb. 28, the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years.

RIO DE JANEIRO Roman Catholics around the world expressed disbelief and grief Monday at the first papal resignation in six centuries. Some saw it as a dramatic act of humility, others as a sign of crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. And many expressed hope that a more energetic and charismatic new pope would lead the church into a new era.

Shock was the overwhelming first response to Pope Benedict XVI's announcement Monday that he would retire Feb. 28.

"He can't quit like that. This can't be," said Alis Ramirez, an ice cream seller headed to church in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. "A vacuum is created. It's like when a loved one dies."

The news also brought reawakened calls for a pope from the developing world, long considered a bulwark against continued losses in church membership in Europe and the United States. While the church has been battered by growing secularism and sex abuse scandals in the northern hemisphere, the number of believers is growing in Africa, and half the world's Catholics live in Latin America.

"We need someone young who can bring back the dynamism to the church," said Zulma Alves, a cook who was lighting candles in front of a Rio de Janeiro church that was closed for Carnival.

In Cuba, site of one of Pope Benedict's final trips, the few parishioners outside Havana's Cathedral before doors opened early Monday said they understood his reasons for stepping down and hoped it he would be replaced by a younger pontiff.

"The church must bring itself up to date with the modern world," said Angel Aguilera, a 33-year-old municipal worker.

Antonio Marto, the bishop of Fatima in central Portugal, said Benedict XVI's resignation presents an opportunity to pick a church leader from a country from the developing world.

"Europe today is going through a period of cultural tiredness, exhaustion, which is reflected in the way Christianity is lived," Marto told reporters. "You don't see that in Africa or Latin America where there is a freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith.

"Perhaps we need a pope who can look beyond Europe and bring to the entire church a certain vitality that is seen on other continents."

It may be time for a "youngish" pope, possibly from the developing world, said Andreas Dingstad, a spokesman for the Catholic diocese in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

"The church is growing most in the south. So I think lots of people will be ready for a pope from Africa, Asia or South America. But who knows, it's the early days still," Dingstad said.

The nation with biggest Christian population in Africa, Nigeria, has some 20 million practicing Catholics. In Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, trader Chukwuma Awaegwu put his feelings simply Monday: "If I had my way, an African should be the next pope, or someone from Nigeria."

"It's true; they brought the religion to us, but we have come of age," he said. "In America, now we have a black president. So let's just feel the impact of a black pope."

But Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, a Nigerian who was made a cardinal in November by Benedict, said papal politics are not normal politics.

"Popes come and popes go. It doesn't mean when a pope comes, the church completely changes, now. It isn't like a politician who wins an election and begins to implement manifestos," Onaiyekan said. "It is a different ball game all together, and I hope people out there realize that."

Bookmakers in Britain quicly offered odds on candidates to replace Benedict. Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson, Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria led in betting.

Scholars of other faiths also weighed in on the outgoing pope's legacy.

In Britain, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans, expressed "a heavy heart but complete understanding" of the pope's decision.

A noted Islamic scholar in Jerusalem was less sympathetic. He said Benedict would be remembered by Muslims for misrepresenting their faith, damaging years of careful interfaith dialogue by his predecessor John Paul II.

"I regret that his term was not marked by genuine rapprochement with the Muslim world," said Mustafa Abu Sway of the Palestinian al-Quds University. Abu Sway said many Muslims couldn't forget Benedict's much-criticized lecture in 2006 at the University of Regensburg in Germany when he referenced a remark about Islam that offended Muslims.

"I just hope that the next Pope would do a much better job," Abu Sway said.

Many Catholics, however, praised Benedict for bravery and modesty in deciding to step aside.

In the pope's native Germany, the pontiff's older brother, 89-year-old Georg Ratzinger, told the dpa news agency in Regensburg that a doctor had advised his brother not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips and said was having increasing difficulty walking. "His age is weighing on him," Ratzinger said.

In Poland, the homeland of Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, Krakow Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz said he was "surprised like everybody else," but said cardinals at the Vatican could see that Benedict was "weakening, had problems walking" even as his intellect remained strong.

The resignation was an act of deference to the greater good by a man "demonstrating his humanity," said Father Luis Rivero, Archdiocesan director of campus ministry for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami.

"There are times that only we know that we have to let go. And sometimes people may see that as a failure, but it's honorable when someone reaches their point they have to let go because they can't do this effectively anymore."