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Postcards and calendars are displayed outside a shop at the Vatican.

Max Rossi/Reuters

The 20 nuns at Rome's Institute of Saints Rufina and Secunda gathered around the TV on Monday morning in stunned silence, unable to believe what they were hearing: Pope Benedict XVI was calling it quits.

To them, his death would have been less surprising. They all knew he was ailing.

Sister Giuseppina Nicolini, 77, one of the institute's senior nuns, said the nuns were convinced the news was a hoax.

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"It was such a surprise," she said Tuesday. "For me – all of us – we thought it was a journalist's joke."

When they realized that Pope Benedict, 85, was really to become the first pope in six centuries not to end his job with a funeral, they talked about the significance of this premature departure. Was the sensational break with tradition an act of courage or weakness? The Pope did the right thing, they concluded.

"I'm not in agreement that you have to stay on the cross until the very end," Sister Giuseppina said.

The institute's administrator, Sister Giovanna Colombo, said the Pope was selfless. "He retired with courage," she said. "It was good for him and the church."

The nuns' institute is instilled with history, religion and prayer. Located in Trastevere, the knot of medieval and renaissance streets just south of the Vatican, the convent is built on the ruins of the ancient Roman house believed to have been the home of the sisters Rufina and Secunda, who were martyred in the third century. The institute rents out cheap rooms to struggling Italian university students and is blessed with cultural treasures, including a medieval tower that was used to hide Jews during the Second World War.

It is also something of a fan club for Pope Benedict. His portrait, in a gold frame, hangs prominently in the convent's receiving room. The nuns speak highly of the man and their opinion of him went up on Monday, when he announced his resignation because of frailty and weakness. Sister Giuseppina said the final months of Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, were a misery – for him, for the Roman Catholics who loved him and for the Vatican – because of his failing health. She understands why Benedict wanted out while he could still walk.

She also thinks he did the right thing politically, implying, in effect, that when the teacher is away, the kids will play. "If the Pope is weak, the cardinals will do what they want," she said.

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Rev. Paul Michael Haffner, a lecturer at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, called the Pope's resignation "liberating" for future popes because he broke the never-resign tradition. "With life expectancies becoming longer, the taboo surrounding resignations should not be so great if you are weak," he said. "New situations need new solutions."

Not everyone shares the sisters' or Father Haffner's views. Some Roman Catholics think the pope's job is a job for life; if his final years or months are physically and mentally painful, he is brought closer to the suffering of Christ.

That's the view of Antonia, a 64-year-old housewife who declined to give her surname. She is a regular visitor at Santa Dorotea, a small church in Rome's Trastevere that was visited by John Paul in 1991. "It finishes when the pope dies, not before," she said. "For me, he's like Christ. He has to die on the cross. What Benedict did was not courageous. I'm deluded."

John Paul's personal secretary, the Polish Cardinal Stanislao Dziwicsz, confirmed to the press this week that John Paul whispered, "One does not descend from the cross," a few weeks before he died, in response to the question: Do you want to resign?

Benedict may be weaker than he appears. On Tuesday, the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore revealed that the Pope had an operation three months ago to replace a heart pacemaker. The surgery was confirmed by the Vatican.

The Pope's last day in office is to be Feb. 28, after which he will retire.

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A new pope is to be selected by the 118 cardinal electors by Easter, which falls on March 31. Cardinals from around the world are pouring back into Rome for the conclave, whose secret votes next month will select Benedict's successor.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former archbishop of Quebec, is touted as a front-runner by non-Vatican officials, such as priests and former Holy See diplomats. He is seen as a strong "compromise" candidate – a man who is not European or American, and with strong links to the expanding Latin American church, where he spent much of his career. He speaks five languages, appears to be in good health and, at 68, is considered young enough to become a pope with staying power. As prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, he is also a senior member of the Vatican's power structure. A regular visitor to receptions hosted by the Canadian embassy to the Holy See, he is considered affable, refreshingly direct and happy to talk about all manner of earthly and spiritual topics with lay people.

Cardinal Ouellet is not touting his credentials as a potential pope.

Self-promotion before or during the conclave is considered bad form and typically renders a cardinal "non-papable" in short order. Father Haffner thinks Cardinal Ouellet has a fair chance of getting the big job. "He is known to North Americans and South Americans," he said. "And since he is from Quebec, he is acceptable to the French."

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