Local Catholics on Monday applauded Pope Benedict XVI’s courage in deciding to resign by month’s end because of advancing age and health issues. A few said they hoped a younger, more internationally visible leader would be appointed as the 85-year-old pontiff’s successor.
Millie Harmon spoke with admiration for Pope Benedict, who will become the first pope to retire in nearly 600 years.
“It takes a lot of humility and grace to know when it’s time to leave a position,” said Harmon, who is liturgy coordinator for St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, the largest place of worship in Bartholomew County with 4,200 members.
“This has so rarely happened, so his decision speaks to the respect he has for the office,” Harmon said.
Monday’s papal announcement took church officials and most Catholics worldwide by surprise.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope at age 78 in April 2005, succeeding the highly popular and very visible John Paul II, who died in office.
Pope Benedict will step down Feb. 28. His decision sets the stage for a mid-March conclave to elect a new leader for the Catholic Church.
The Rev. Clem Davis, St. Bartholomew’s pastor, said he sees the move as a good one on several fronts.
“I think it’s good modeling for all of us,” Davis said, remembering that Benedict always had said he would step down if he were in faltering health. “It says that none of us is indispensable.”
Davis acknowledged that he was concerned when the pope first assumed leadership, because he was known for a tough stance on Catholic guidelines and theology. But he said he was heartened when the pope’s first encyclical, or official letter sent to bishops, focused on the importance of love in the Christian life.
“I think it’s unfair to saddle him with much of the blame regarding the priest sex scandals,” Davis said.
The German theologian, whose mission was to reawaken Christianity in a secularized Europe, grew increasingly frail as he shouldered the monumental task of purging the Catholic world of a sex abuse scandal that festered under John Paul II and exploded during his reign into the church’s biggest crisis in decades if not centuries.
More recently, he bore the painful burden of betrayal by one of his closest aides: Benedict’s own butler was convicted by a Vatican court of stealing the pontiff’s personal papers and giving them to a journalist, one of the gravest breaches of papal security in modern times.
“He inherited a situation that was bad. And he took steps that his predecessor did not in terms of removing people from key positions of leadership,” Davis said.
St. Bartholomew member Liz Bidwell said she saluted the ponitiff’s recognition that it was time to step aside.
“When John Paul got to be close to that age, I don’t think he was perhaps as effective,” Bidwell said. “I think it’s hard for them to really be there for the people (at an advanced age). And I think these days, more people want to see the pope (in person). Centuries ago, or even decades ago, people never got to see the pope because he always was at the Vatican.
“I think people like to experience being with the one who is the leader of the church,” Bidwell added. “Being near the people makes him more human and less iconic, especially for the young people.”
St. Bartholomew Catholic School Principal Kathy Schubel remembered pulling a television into the cafeteria when news networks announced Ratzinger’s selection nearly eight years ago.
“I was kind of surprised because he was old,” Schubel said. “I think it would be kind of exciting if, this time, they elect someone younger and with good energy.”
Juan Carlos Ramirez, vice chairman of St. Bartholomew’s Hispanic ministry, said he appreciated the pope’s support of Catholic churches’ emphasis on “including all people in the liturgy and in the programs.”
Ramirez said he doesn’t worry whether there will be a new, pro-Hispanic pope.
“I think,” he said, “that we really need to see each other simply as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.