The last time a pope resigned was in the Middle Ages, so it is perhaps no surprise that this announcement was a complete surprise.
Clergy close to the pontiff were described as incredulous after hearing the news.
Outside in St Peter’s Square too there was similar puzzlement. One pilgrim who had come from Taranto in Italy said: “We are all wondering what kind of spiritual or physical pain has led the pope to resign.”
A resident of Rome said: “To resign from a political post is normal, but from a religious position is a little strange.”
Another visitor said: “I’m really surprised, I’m just a tourist, just visiting St Peter’s Cathedral. I don’t know what to say more than this, just really surprised. I hope the next pope can be better than this one.”
Church officials say Benedict will not play a part in the selection of his successor who is expected to be named by the end of March.