Pope Benedict XVI

Paris -

French cardinal Paul Poupard recounted the moment Pope Benedict XVI made his historic announcement that he was stepping down from his post, in comments to a French newspaper on Tuesday.

Poupard knew from the very first words of the speech that the pope was stepping down, he told Tuesday's edition of France's Le Figaro newspaper.

The 85-year-old Benedict told a group of cardinals in a speech in Latin on Monday that he would step down on February 28 because his advancing age prevented him from carrying out his duties in a fast-changing world.

Only a few advisers knew of the pope's plan beforehand and many leaders of the Vatican hierarchy were caught off guard.

Poupard said the cardinals had been called to what they thought was a routine meeting.

At what most thought was the end of the meeting, everyone was asked to take his seat again and the pope started speaking in Latin, said Poupard.

It was at that point he realised that something extraordinary was happening.

“I understood from the very first words and I said 'My God',” Poupard, a former Vatican culture minister, told the paper.

“As it went on, I saw the faces opposite me express astonishment, stupor,” he added.

“The whole thing lasted a few minutes at most,” he said.

“Then the pope left with his usual discretion and restraint, leaving us all very moved in the face of this exceptional and historic decision,” he added.

For Poupard it was a decision that had clearly been carefully thought through and announced in conformity with canonical law.

“His decision was taken freely, in a clear and public manner,” he added.

“This announcement has really been a complete surprise that nobody saw coming.” - Sapa-AFP