VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI's decision to resign the papacy was a "surprise, like thunder that gives no notice that it's coming," said one of the cardinals who was in the room when the pope announced his decision Feb. 11.
"We were about to get the blessing and he said, 'Please sit down. I have something to say important for the church,'" said Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
From the very first words of Pope Benedict's statement, which he delivered in Latin, Cardinal Arinze said he began to fear that it would mean the pope's resignation, he told Catholic News Service.
As the pope's meaning became unambiguous, the cardinals looked at one another "in silence, in surprise," Cardinal Arinze said. "At the end there was silence."
After the pope left the room, "we did not go away," the cardinal said. "We got together in little groups, as it were, each one asking, 'What has happened?' But there was no doubt about esteem for the Holy Father, for his courage and his love for the church.
"It may well be that his health is not as strong as I thought," Cardinal Arinze said. "He loves the church so much that he thinks it's better for the church that he leave and another person take over this heavy burden.
"I haven't any doubt about his wisdom," the cardinal said. "He doesn't rush. He is not rash. He is gentle. But he's also clear-headed and firm."
Cardinal Arinze said he hoped that Pope Benedict's decision to resign would "help many to get more mature in our faith … help all of us to be deeper in our faith, to be also, let us say, less sentimental."
"Our faith is not on the pope, it is on Christ who is the foundation of the church," the cardinal said. "The pope is a servant. Indeed, one of his titles is 'servant of the servants of God.' … So his act yesterday was like saying, 'I am a servant. I think another servant should come on.'"
The pope's resignation "can also be a very good example for all of us," Cardinal Arinze said. "Not only bishops. There are politicians, there are heads of state, there are heads of government" who refuse to yield office even when doing so would serve the common good.
"So the pope's action yesterday could, we'll hope, deliver a lesson to such, whether in the church or the state or a university or a corporation," the cardinal said. "Anyone in authority is there to serve."
Many of the other cardinals who were present in the same room as the pope during his announcement expressed both shock and admiration for what the pope did.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, said the pope's decision was "unexpected, shocking, emotional and moving."
He told an Italian television program that he saw the pope later that day, as he does every Monday, and found him to be "very much at peace." The cardinal, who worked with the pope at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he has many "extraordinarily beautiful memories: his gentle ways and a trust that always bolstered me even during difficulties."
Cardinal Raffaele Farina, retired head of the Vatican Secret Archives and the Vatican Library, said the cardinals in the room "were all surprised, at a loss, frozen, no one had expected it."
"Many faces were stained with tears," he told the Italian daily La Repubblica. The pope made "a gesture of great responsibility. He did it with style, aware that the church needed a new guide who is stronger, more stable and more energetic," he said.
Watch the interview below: