CHICAGO — Cardinal Francis George saw Pope Benedict XVI in Rome last Thursday — but the pontiff showed no signs he was about to step down, Chicago's archbishop said Monday.
George, speaking at a press conference, said after meeting with the pope privately for a few minutes, there was "not the slightest indication in my mind that this was someone who was about to resign."
The 85-year-old pope stunned Catholics worldwide Monday morning by announcing his plans to step down for health reasons at the end of February. He's the first pontiff to resign his post since the Middle Ages.
George said the pope asked him about his own health; the cardinal is battling cancer.
"I regret now I didn't have the presence of mind to say, 'Holy Father, how is your health?' " George said.
George, in a statement issued before his press conference, said Pope Benedict XVI "has taught with clarity and charity" and asked "the Lord to bless him and give him strength."
George, the Archbishop of Chicago, had filed his own mandatory resignation letter in January of 2012, which was pending approval by the pope. The resignation is mandatory for bishops who reach the age of 75.
In his statement, George calls for the lord to "bless him" and give Benedict "strength." George has battled is own health scares, including two diagnoses of cancer. He is reportedly cancer-free.
Earlier, George issued a statement saying "Pope Benedict XVI has, in all circumstances, placed the will of God for the good of the Church before every other consideration. That same resoluteness of purpose speaks in his statement announcing his resignation from the Chair of Peter.
He has taught with clarity and charity what God has revealed to the world in Christ; he has handed on the apostolic faith; he has loved all of God’s people with all his heart. He has now shown great courage in deciding, after prayer and soul-searching, to resign his office at the end of this month.
With the gratitude of sons and daughters in our hearts, we ask the Lord to bless him and give him strength, as we begin to pray now for the one who will succeed him as Bishop of Rome, Successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ."
Many parishioners at downtown's Holy Name Cathedral said Monday morning they were shocked to hear of Pope Benedict's decision.
"It's surprising news," said Christina Fernandez Sainz de Baranda. Like others around the world, Fernandez, 24, said she wants to know more about why Benedict is stepping down.
"It's strange," Fernandez added.
But Brother Christopher Neuman, who also spent part of his Monday morning at Holy Name Cathedral, said he believes Benedict probably had his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in mind. Neuman said Benedict got a close look at how John Paul II struggled with health problems towards the end of his life.
“He was very close to him, so I’m sure every minute that he saw that, it just must have bothered him and ached him tremendously,” Neuman said.
Neuman, who said he took his vows to become a Franciscan brother exactly 60 years ago Monday, said Benedict's departure from the tradition of remaining pope until death gives him "hope for change in the church."
"I think it's a great thing," Neuman said. "We need to do a lot of changing in the church, so I just have great hope right now that things are going to change."
Neuman said he has grown to like Benedict but says some of the issues he'd like to see the church address its stance on sexuality, homosexuality and the role of women in the church.
"We talk about the [Second Vatican Council] bringing in fresh air, opening up the windows. I hope this can open up the windows and we can see some changes,” Neuman said.
While George noted the growing number of Catholics in Latin America, Africa and other developing nations at the press conference, he rejected the idea that where the next pope is from should have much bearing on his selection during the upcoming papal conclave.
"It matters less where someone is from," George said, citing ability to govern and lead the church as central priorities.
"[But] that would be an appropriate question: Should we be looking elsewhere."