THE nuns who converted to Catholicism under a new scheme created by Pope Benedict XVI last night said they would be “eternally grateful” to the retiring Pontiff.

The 85-year-old Benedict stunned the world when he announced on Monday he was unable to continue as the head of the Catholic church due to his age.

Prayers are being said for the Pope – who is to step down at the end of the month – in Oxfordshire’s Roman Catholic churches.

The pontiff will also be mentioned in assemblies in Catholic schools when pupils return next week.

Benedict created an iniaitive that allowed 12 Anglican nuns to convert from The Wantage sisters, from the Community of St Mary the Virgin, to the Pope’s Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham last month.

Mother Winsome, superior of the community, said: “We will be eternally grateful to the Holy Father for what he has done to make it possible for us to become Catholics together.

“We love him and will continue to love him and pray for him.”

The sense of shock throughout the Catholic world at the Pope’s retirement was mirrored in Oxfordshire.

Father Daniel Seward, provost of the Oxford Oratory, in Woodstock Road, said the news came as “a bolt from the blue”.

He said: “It is a great shock. The word Pope means father, it’s not a job like any other.”

Adding he will be regarded as “a great Pope”, Fr Seward said: “I am sure he will only have taken this step after a huge amount of prayer and consideration.”

Pope Benedict took over from Pope John Paul II – who took office in 1978 aged 58 – in 2005.

Fr Nazarius Mgungwe, of the Sacred Heart Church in Blackbird Leys, said: “It will shock a lot of people that wanted him to continue despite ill health, but I think it is a very bold decision.

“For me personally, I believe the Church should think of age as a factor to consider in the future.

“I would like to see someone a little younger follow him.”

Stephen Oliver, headteacher at Catholic independent school Our Lady’s Abingdon, echoed Fr Nazarius’ views. He said: “Probably this time we need a younger man, but somebody who continues the great work Benedict has done.”

Brother Charles Serignat, guardian of Greyfriars, Iffley Road, said Pope Benedict’s impact would be clearer in coming years. He said: “It is an almost impossible job. Any new leader has to bring something new but also keep an eye on continuity.”

He added: “I am sure there is somebody in the present College of Cardinals that will fit the bill admirably.”

A new Pope will be elected before the end of March. The last Pope who resigned from office was Gregory XII in 1415. Pope Benedict said: “My strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”