The announcement by Pope Benedict XVI on Monday that he would resign on Feb. 28, has taken the local community by surprise. Pope Benedict XVI is the first pontiff to retire in nearly 600 years.

The Rev. Michael Ahrensfield, pastor of St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Lehighton said he heard the unexpected news Monday morning.

"There were rumors because of his health," said the Rev. Ahrensfield. "Then he'd continue and then all of a sudden today we heard that he can't do any longer because of his health."

The Rev. Ahrensfield said that the last few times he saw the Pontiff on television he looked frail.

"He was slow moving, but he did his best to continue his ministry as the Pope, giving Papal instruction as Christ's replacement. His age and his health is taking it's toll and he sees it necessary to step down."

While the Rev. Ahrensfield has never been in the Pope's presence, he has read quite a bit of his teachings.

"They are really great works," he added. "While some might not like him, his teachings make strong statements that we need to hear to get back on track. He has done his best as Christ's replacement here on earth."

The Rev. Ahrensfield said that he is not sure of the oldest age of a Pope and wondered if succession should come with an age limit.

"He has had the weight of the world on his shoulders," he said. "It's awesome."

Josephine Noll, a parishioner who is involved in the music ministry as choir director at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, feels very sad that Pope Benedict XVI is retiring.

"It's due to his illness," said Noll. "It becomes difficult as they get older."

She said she was surprised to hear of his retirement.

"I guess it surprised a lot of people. It has been 600 years since it happened. I say God bless him for all the wonderful leadership and love he gave the church. When you get older it becomes difficult. We give him our blessings."

John Meier, president of the Holy Name Society, Sunday School teacher and lector at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Lehighton had this to say.

"I am surprised by it because it hasn't happened," said Meier. The last pope persevered through his bad health for a long time. With this Pope, he has been told because of his condition that he shouldn't fly. I guess he thinks we should have someone more vibrant. I'm sure there is another good Cardinal waiting in the wings."

Pope Benedict XVI told his cardinals and the world on Monday that his advanced age is no longer suited to the ministry. The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants. The Vatican will have to hold a conclave to elect a new pope by mid-March. The traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed.

There are several contenders to be his successor including Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan; Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna; Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican's office for bishops; and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.