To be precise, it has been 598 years since Pope Gregory XII stepped down in the midst of church infighting. Benedict's departure at the end of February will be less politically fraught.
The news prompted encomiums from church leaders such as Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who interpreted the resignation as an example of the pope's selflessness.
"As Pope Benedict XVI, he has led God's people through complicated times with uncommon grace, and his stepping down now, at 85, from the burdens of his office is another sign of his placing the needs of the church above his own," Chaput, who was out of town, said in a statement. "Catholics worldwide owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. He will remain in our hearts and always be in our prayers."
O'Connell, who was appointed to his post in Trenton by Benedict, said in a statement that the pontiff's resignation demonstrated his courage and devotion "in a world where power and influence are sought after and held tightly."
Local parishioners who agreed with the pope's conservative views reacted with sadness as well as hope.
"I think he was a good pope," said Macrina, a retired financial analyst. She said she maintains the same religious beliefs instilled in her as a child growing up in an Italian Catholic family in Bella Vista.
"We have a lot of 'cafeteria Catholics' who pick and choose what they want to believe in," Macrina said, pulling her warm black coat tightly around her in the damp chill before entering the cathedral's warm sanctuary. "So maybe we need someone strong, maybe a younger man to protect the church."
Admirers like Betzal, the tour guide at the cathedral, praised the pope's intellect and the depth of his faith, and said he was certain the decision was "guided by the Holy Spirit."
Betzal noted the symbolic importance of the pope's decision to make his announcement in Latin, a decision that apparently left some of the cardinals present in the dark until a translation was given.
"We are an interesting entity," a modern-day church with ancient roots, he said. "That tradition with a capital T is very important to the church."
While it is true that the pope broke with tradition, Betzal said, the resignation may just be a "natural progression."
Thinking back on the pope's tenure, several area Catholics reasoned that, his age notwithstanding, any man in his position would surely have been worn down by the political storms over issues such as gay marriage, child sexual abuse scandals, shrinking church membership and fewer people joining the clergy.
Mannella said she thinks the pontiff made the right decision.
"If he feels that he's not up to the task, then certainly he should follow his heart. I'm sure he prayed on it and made a decision that he felt was best for all Catholics," she said.
Four U.S. cardinals with ties to Pennsylvania are likely to help determine Benedict's successor. Among those eligible to vote for the new pope are Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, a former bishop of Pittsburgh; Cardinals Daniel N. DiNardo and Sean O'Malley, both of whom grew up there; and Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, who preceded Chaput.
While praise for Benedict echoed throughout the day, so did criticism that he should have done more to address the problem of child sexual abuse within the church.
"I have mixed feelings. This pope doesn't really have a good history," said Michael Mangoni, a Temple University student attending Mass at the cathedral. "The Catholic Church puts a lot of value on the abortion issue, but there is a plethora of other issues facing the world. Maybe this is a good opportunity for somebody more progressive."
Diane Simpson, who volunteers at her grandchildren's school, Our Lady of Assumption in Atco, which the Camden Diocese recently announced would close next year, said Benedict failed the victims of abusive priests.
"They are closing schools, merging churches. They have to get the money from somewhere," she said.
Like many of her fellow Catholics, Simpson sympathized with Benedict, who succeeded the enormously popular John Paul II.
She hopes, she said, that the next pope will be "a little more liberal" and consider allowing priests to marry and women to become priests.
"I feel that's part of the reason that the Catholic Church is losing its members," she said. "They're not listening to the people."
Contact Melissa Dribben at 215 854 2590 or email@example.com
Inquirer staff writer David O'Reilly contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.