ROME, Feb. 11, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – As Catholics and people of good will across the globe grapple with Pope Benedict XVI’s shocking announcement Monday morning that he will resign the papacy at 8 pm on Feb. 28th, Catholic and pro-life leaders are offering gratitude for his eight years at the helm of the Barque of Peter.

The media frenzy over the first papal resignation in six hundred years has brought a flurry of response from Church commentators. LifeSiteNews has spoken with numerous leaders at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life as well as top pro-life activists in Europe and North America who urged prayers for Pope Benedict and the whole Church during this near-unprecedented transition period.

In his statement on the Pope’s move, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York called it “an important moment in our lives as citizens of the world,” and noted Benedict’s tireless defense of human life.

“Pope Benedict often cited the significance of eternal truths and he warned of a dictatorship of relativism,” said Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Some values, such as human life, stand out above all others, he taught again and again. It is a message for eternity.”

Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said his organization is taking the surprising news in a “positive light,” calling it “an expression of [the Pope’s] concern and love for the Church.”

“He wants the Church to have a Pope who can fulfill his role with the strength and vigor that the office requires,” he explained.

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Mercedes Wilson, founder of Family of the Americas and an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, agreed the news came as a “big shock" but also expressed a certain disappointment.

"I think it’s better to leave it to God’s will, to keep at the helm of the Church as long as possible until God takes you,” she said. “But, you know, who am I to judge? I don’t know what the doctors may have told him. He has been a good Pope, faithful to the teachings of the Church. So we have to pray that that was the right decision.”

“Let’s hope that who ever is to replace him will be a strong leader that will defend the family and the gift of life as the most precious gift,” she added. “All of Europe and all of the West is suffering from lack of children. Let’s hope that more emphasis can be given to this fact.”

John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life’s governing council, said his organization has “always felt a special affinity with Pope Benedict XVI,” noting that he had twice spoken at their workshops for bishops while he served as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

“When I first the heard the news from Europe, before sunrise here in the United States, I was stunned,” said Haas in a statement sent to LifeSiteNews. “But after the reality settled in, I could not help but smile and think to myself, ‘How admirable is his commitment to duty’!”

Haas said Pope Benedict deserves special praise for his contribution to Church teaching on bioethics in the instruction Donum Vitae, which was released by the CDF in 1987 while he served as prefect.

“The Church’s moral principles articulated in that document remain unassailable as the surest guide available in our day to address the complex and difficult moral issues arising from advances in micro-biology and ‘reproductive technologies’,” said Haas. “The magisterial, bioethical Dignitas Personae of 2008 builds on that foundational document but certainly does not surpass it.”

LifeSiteNews also spoke with pro-life leaders from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Ireland.

Jim Hughes, national president of Canada’s Campaign Life Coalition, said the Pope would be “sorely missed.” “He just seemed to be in the middle of his plan of action. It’ll be a major task now to find someone to fill those shoes,” he said.

John Smeaton, director of the U.K.’s Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, thanked the Pope for his “defence of the unchanging teaching on the purpose of human sexuality,” noting especially his emphasis on the connection between the protection of human life and the defense of marriage and family.

“Pope Benedict’s statements were wake-up calls to the whole pro-life movement to campaign against same-sex marriage and similar threats to the life-giving meaning of sexuality,” said Smeaton.

Niamh Uí Bhriain of Ireland’s Life Institute said that Benedict XVI has been a source of huge inspiration to the pro-life movement worldwide and noted that the Pontiff had recently been outspoken in his opposition to proposals by the Irish government to legalise abortion. 

"Pope Benedict was clear and unequivocal in his defence of Life, saying that abortion was a 'crime against society', that it ' kills the child and destroys the woman'. He urged all of us to become active in pro-life work, noting that 'God speaks to each of us, inviting us to defend human life at all times'. In that way, the Pope was a great encouragement and leader to people of all faiths and none within the movement." 

"I join many others in praying that Benedict's successor is blessed with the courage to continue giving vocal support for the protection of human life from conception and without exception," she said.

Father Shenan J. Boquet, president of Human Life International, said his organization joins the rest of the universal Church in praying for the Pope.

"The suddenness of His Holiness' announcement is cause for concern for his health, as it seems to have caught almost everyone by surprise,” he said. ”Though our concern is more than matched by our gratitude for Pope Benedict's many wonderful gifts to the Church as Holy Father, bishop and priest. His three wonderful encyclicals, his many apostolic letters and addresses have all helped to guide the Church through a difficult period."

“His unflinching defense of Church teaching and the most fundamental rights of every human person have inspired our missionaries around the world,” Fr. Boquet added. "So in prayer and gratitude we lift up our Holy Father and the Church he has served, asking the Holy Spirit to guide the cardinals of the Church in their task of choosing Pope Benedict's successor."

Speaking on NBC News Monday morning, George Weigel, the famed biographer of Bl. John Paul II, suggested that the Pope’s move should be called an “abdication” rather than a resignation. “A resignation is something that someone hands to someone else,” he explained. “Popes have no one to resign to, so this is an abdication.”

“It is obviously unprecedented, but I think we’ve all had the sense, both from the realities of a world where people live much longer than before and from the pope’s words, that this was a real possibility," he added.

Deal Hudson, president of Pennsylvania Catholics Network, urged the Cardinals who will elect Benedict’s successor to choose a man who will carry on the Pope’s legacy of reform.

He said the Pope’s resignation “ends an era of reform and restoration in the Church that began in November 1978 with the election of John Paul II.”

“That Benedict XVI allowed retired Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, a powerful broker of the liberalization following Vatican II, to be stripped of all his archdiocesan duties is symbolic of the changes brought about in the last 35 years under John Paul II and Benedict XVI,” said Hudson. “The cardinals at the upcoming conclave will be faced with the choice of whether to continue the direction marked out by the last two pontiffs.”

Michael D. O’Brien, the famed Catholic author and painter, said the move is “understandable,” but “will be a colossal loss for the Church.”

“May all Catholics pray fervently for the coming Conclave, that the Holy Spirit will grant us another Man of Truth who embodies caritas and veritas with courage,” he told LifeSiteNews.

The Pope’s announcement has also sparked reaction from faith leaders outside the Catholic Church.

The U.K.’s Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said he was “honoured” to welcome the Pope to Britain in 2010 on behalf of non-Christian faiths and to visit him at the Vatican in 2011.

“I saw him to be a man of gentleness, of quiet and of calm, a deeply thoughtful and compassionate individual who carried with him an aura of grace and wisdom,” he said. “I wish him good health, blessings and best wishes for the future.”

On Facebook, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the Pope “has offered a brave and intelligent defense of truth against a relativist tide, and he has been a stalwart friend of life.”