THE Rev Canon John Cunningham has spoken of his surprise after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on Monday.

Canon Cunningham took over as parish priest at Holy Rood Catholic Church in Groundwell Road after the retirement of one of Swindon’s longest-serving community bastions, Monsignor Canon Richard Twomey.

Canon Cunningham, a former banker, said he thought the Pope’s decision was purely down to health reasons and said that he had made a brave decision to step down.

He said: “It is very surprising news.

“No pope has resigned from their post in nearly 600 years and I think it is a courageous thing to do, and it is the right thing to do.

“We can see how frail he has been and I do not believe there is any other reason behind it other than poor health.

“I went to Rome last year and it appears his health has deteriorated further.

“Over that 600 year period popes have died in office, the Church has had to move on and has elected a successor.

“It will be exactly the same thing now and we have to pray that the cardinals can elect a rightful successor.

“He had a hard act to follow Pope John Paul II but I think he did very well.”

Pope Benedict, when elected at 78, was one of the oldest new pontiffs in history.

The now 85-year-old’s last public appearance should be his final general audience in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City, the papal enclave within Rome, on February 27.