The announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will resign on Feb. 28 shocked Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But after the conservatism of his papacy and that of his predecessor John Paul II, analysts say Benedict’s successor is unlikely to bring major change to a church shaken by scandal and declining faith.
In the crypt of the Washington Basilica, America's largest Roman Catholic church, Monsignor Vito Buonanno echoed the shock many Catholics felt over the first papal resignation in six centuries.
"We ask the Lord to steady us at this time of uncertainty," he said.
But Buonanno says he understands why Benedict XVI decided he no longer should be the leader of the world's one billion Roman Catholics.
"This must have been a very difficult decision. And that I respect very much because I know this was something that was seriously thought over and prayed over," Buonanno said.
The pope did leave hints, says spokesman Don Clemmer of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"In April 2009, he visited the tomb of Pope Celestine V who resigned in the year 1294, one of the only popes ever to do so. Small symbolic things, but maybe hints, that this was on his mind," Clemmer said.
But the resignation comes as Evangelical Protestant churches are on the rise in the developing world and the Church is dealing with a corruption scandal involving the Pope's butler.
Benedict did take uprecedented steps against pedophile priests, says Clemmer.
"And as pope he’s met with victims in various countries around the world and also had sexual abuse of a child classified as one of the gravest crimes against the church," he said.
Some European commentators are suggesting that Benedict was pushed out because of those efforts.
Chester Gillis is a theology professor and dean of Georgetown College in Washington. He dismisses that theory.
"I do not think that he would have succumbed to some international or external pressure to resign. There’s been lots of pressure on every pope historically, and they’ve stayed around. So I think this was a deliberate choice on his part," Gillis said.
He says the legacy left by Benedict and John Paul II is an arch-conservative church out of step with many Roman Catholics.
"And if they get another really hardline conservative they may say, 'Okay, enough, I’m out.' And some conservatives would say, 'That’s fine we don’t need them,'" Gillis said.
Benedict himself does not officially have a vote over who will be his successor. But more than half the cardinals who do, were appointed by him.
Ron Johnson says there are some qualities he would welcome in the next pontiff.
"I hope the next pope is a lot like John Paul II - someone who is outgoing, who is energetic, who is bilingual. A person of color perhaps even," Johnson said.