BERLIN (AP) — Many in Germany haven't always had an easy relationship with the conservative-minded Pope Benedict XVI, but most on Monday praised their countryman's courage in deciding to step down from his position amid failing health.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Protestant, said that the 85-year-old pope's decision that he was no longer fit enough to continue in the job "earns my very highest respect."
"In our time of ever-lengthening life, many people will be able to understand how the pope as well has to deal with the burdens of aging," she told reporters in Berlin.
The pope's elder brother, 89-year-old Georg Ratzinger, told the dpa news agency at his home in Regensburg that his brother had been advised by his doctor not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips and was having increasing difficulty walking.
"His age is weighing on him," Ratzinger said of the pontiff. "At this age my brother wants more rest."
He said he had known for months of the pope's decision. Others, however, were caught off guard.
Two old acquaintances of Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, from his time at Germany's University of Tuebingen, said they first thought the news was a joke.
"I didn't expect it, but it was something I wouldn't have put past him," Max Seckler, a retired theology professor who worked with Ratzinger at Tuebingen in the 1960s, said in a telephone interview. "He was in many aspects of his papacy very innovative and unconventional."
Seckler highlighted Benedict's ability to form "a real friendship" with Jewish leaders and said that "he invigorated dialogue with Islam in a credible manner."
He also highlighted the pontiff's "patience" in seeking reconciliation with the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X. That's an issue that drew criticism in Germany, and even a public demand for clarification from Merkel, when he removed the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the Holocaust.
"He tried to present faith positively — his writings as pope served that — and he tried to foster reconciliation toward the right," said Dietmar Mieth, a professor emeritus of theology at Tuebingen who first met Ratzinger in the 1960s. "But otherwise, he reacted reservedly to changes or reforms, and in ecumenism there were rather symbolic actions than concessions of substance."