Prominent lay Catholics reacted with surprise and sorrow to Pope Benedict XVI's announcement that he will resign the papacy, but they praised his Christian life and service to the Catholic Church.

Supreme Knight Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus underscored Catholics' thoughts and prayers are with Pope Benedict in his remaining days in office.

"We wish him all the best in his retirement," Anderson said. "In addition, we pray for all those cardinals who will take part in the conclave, and for his successor, that God may inspire them as they carry out the mission with which they are entrusted."

On Feb. 11, Pope Benedict announced that he would resign from his duties on Feb. 28, citing "advanced age" and deteriorating strength. The consistory of cardinals he had convoked will serve as a papal conclave.

Anderson said the Pope "worked so hard in leading the Church" and has always been "such a good friend" to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal charitable order with over 1.8 million members worldwide.

John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America, said the Washington, D.C. university is "surprised and saddened." He called the Pope "a faithful, charitable and inspired leader of the Church" and "a lover of Jesus Christ."

"He has been a public figure of considerable importance, reminding the world of the inviolable dignity of the human person, and the call of the Gospel to charity."

Garvey said the Pope helped deepen Catholics' understanding of Catholic education and the role of the Catholic educator. He said the university will particularly treasure his April 17, 2008 visit to the campus.

"We will continue to reflect with gratitude on his papacy which has been a gift to The Catholic University of America, to the church, and to the world," Garvey added.

Maureen Ferguson, a senior policy advisor with the D.C.-based group The Catholic Association, reflected that the Pope is stepping down "out of love for the Church and her needs."

"Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered as a profound theologian who encouraged a love for the person of Jesus Christ, and as a reformer who confronted scandal head on and has left the Church with the strongest child protection policies of any institution in the United States," she said.

Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with The Catholic Association, voiced gratitude for Pope Benedict's leadership and his "profound commitment to Christ and the Church." She said the resignation is "an act of great humility."

"Benedict XVI will be remembered as a profound theologian who strengthened Christianity worldwide especially in the West, and as a great reformer who appointed faithful and courageous shepherds who will continue his legacy."

Charles Coulombe, a Catholic historian and writer from Los Angeles, told CNA he was "very unhappy" about the resignation.

"I think he's been the best Pope in my lifetime. And I think that there's a great loss to us all on levels," he said Feb. 11. "On the other hand, looking at what he faces, I can understand why he did it."

He noted the stresses of overseeing ordinary life of the Church, as in the "very strenuous" upcoming Holy Week celebrations. On the political front, there are looming clashes with the U.S., French and Irish governments over religious freedom, the redefinition of marriage and abortion. The Holy See also continues to seek peace amid turmoil in the Middle East.

Coulombe said news of the resignation for him felt like "a kick in the head."

"But as the hours have gone by, and I let myself think about it, I have to believe he knows what he's doing." He said Pope Benedict had "a very ambitious program for the Church," especially in working towards Church unity.

The historian reflected on how the pontiff "faced a great deal of opposition within the ranks" on some initiatives, like the apostolic letter "Summorum Pontificum" that allowed wider celebration of the Latin-language Tridentine Mass.

"He opened the door for a lot of really, really good things. And I suspect he's hoping his successor will have the vigor and the strength to push them through," Coulombe said.