The three most senior figures in the Catholic Church in England and Wales have paid tribute to Pope Benedict XVI after the Pontiff announced he was leaving office on grounds of age and infirmity.
The Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and leader of Catholics in England and Wales, called on "people of faith" to pray for the 85-year-old Pontiff, saying that his announcement had shown "great courage."
"Pope Benedict's announcement today has shocked and surprised everyone," he said in a statement. "Yet, on reflection, I am sure that many will recognise it to be a decision of great courage and characteristic clarity of mind and action.
"The Holy Father recognises the challenges facing the Church and that 'strength of mind and body are necessary' for his tasks of governing the Church and proclaiming the Gospel. I salute his courage and his decision. I ask people of faith to keep Pope Benedict in their prayers. We Catholics will do so, with great affection and the highest esteem for his ministry as our Holy Father remembering with joy his Visit to the United Kingdom in 2010."
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who retired as Archbishop of Westminster in 2009, said: "My reaction was one of surprise and then gratitude for his service and leadership of the Church over the past seven years in troubled times. He has been a great teacher, thinking particularly of his visit to Britain and the example he gave of being a Good Shepherd and a good pastor. We think of him with gratitude and affection."
Prime Minister David Cameron also paid tribute, saying: "He has worked tirelessly to strengthen Britain's relations with the Holy See. His visit to Britain in 2010 is remembered with great respect and affection. He will be missed as a spiritual leader to millions."
The two most senior figures in the Church of England also paid tribute to the pope.
The Most Rev Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, said: "It was with a heavy heart but complete understanding that we learned this morning of Pope Benedict's declaration of his decision to lay down the burden of ministry as Bishop of Rome, an office which he has held with great dignity, insight and courage."
Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said: "With the news that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at the end of February, the Christian world will miss a great theologian with great spiritual depth. We should remember Pope Benedict communicated the revelation of God in a characteristic way as a true successor of St Peter."
The pope's shock decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect his successor before the end of March. Up to 120 cardinals, aged under 80 and from all over the world, will vote to chose his successor. Only one British cardinal, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, 74, from Scotland, is eligible to vote in the conclave. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, who turned 80 last August, will take part in the discussions by cardinals to elect the Pope's successor, but will not be eligible to cast a vote on grounds of his age.