Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is among the top contenders for the next Pope, said the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI came as a surprise to members of the church's body of cardinals.
Arinze, who was speaking to the Catholic News Service, said except for the most senior Cardinal, Cardinal Dean Angelo Sodano, no other cardinal had prior knowledge that the Pope's resignation until the out -going Pope announced it after the usual consistory meeting of the conclave (body of cardinals) to select new saints.
"We were there for a normal consistory meeting where before the pope canonise his new saints, he calls all of us Cardinals and Bishops around and says this is their lives do you vote in favour of canonisation or do you not. We were about to get the blessing when he said please sit down I've something to say important for the church."
"So it was for us a surprise like thunder that gives no notice that it's coming. As he moved on, from what he was saying-the introduction I begin to fear that that's what it would come to. The Cardinals, each one looked at the other in silence, in surprise but it was clear what he said. At the end there was silence."
Mr Arinze also dismissed concerns that the unexpected resignation of the pontiff might generate a leadership tussle among the church leaders, saying they (catholic leaders) are servants of God and not politicians.
"The church would find another one. God is always there, the Holy Spirit does not go on holidays. So there will be another pope. He will be elected in two weeks or so. There's no danger that Pope Benedict will become a problem for that pope, certainly not. Perhaps if he were a politician that was removed by manoeuvres, perhaps his successor would be afraid in this case not so."
"Some people may be shaken that it may change their perception but my hope and prayer is it would help more people to get more mature in our faith. Our faith is not on the Pope, it's on Christ who is the foundation of the church. Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. We all are servant, we come and go; Christ doesn't come and go. He stays on. Without Christ the church has no more meaning. The Pope is a servant. Indeed one of his titles is the Servant of the Servant of God. He's not there for himself or for self-glory. So his act yesterday is to say, "I'm a servant. I think another servant should come on. Very good for the church and very noble of him.
Mr Arinze, who described the outgoing pope as a gentle and careful person, said the pope decision was not hastily reached.
"I've known him for more years to have any doubt. He doesn't rush, he's not rash, he's gentle but he's also clear headed and firm. So it could not have been an idea he got the day before. If anybody is confused, the problem is on the side of that person not on the side of the pope."
He also called on Christians to see the pope's decision as an opportunity to strengthen their faith in God.
"So my faith strengthens me in this church. So this event can become for all of us strengthening and purification in our faith, it's very important. So, Pope Benedict may be teaching us may more things than we realise."