Pope Benedict XVI resignation met with with surprise locally, worldwide
Declaring that he lacks the strength to do his job, Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday he will resign Feb. 28 — becoming the first pontiff to step down in 600 years. His decision sets the stage for a mid-March conclave to elect a new leader for a Roman Catholic Church in deep turmoil.
The 85-year-old pope dropped the bombshell in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprising even his closest collaborators even though he had made clear previously that he would step down if he became too old or infirm to carry on.
Among Sanford's Catholic community, including parishioners and leaders of St. Stephen The First Martyr Catholic Church in Lee County, the news came as a complete surprise, although not something that will affect the specific operations of the church or its ministries.
"I'd imagine like everybody, I was pretty shocked," said Mark Westrick, one of St. Stephen's two deacons. The church has two priests, Robert Ippolito and Hector LaChapelle, but neither could be reached for comment Monday.
Westrick said he was surprised but not worried, which he said seemed to be the general feeling among local Catholics — at least in the immediate wake of the news. While the pope is the spiritual leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, it's the priests and bishops who directly affect individual churches and communities. Westrick said if Benedict's resignation means anything for the day-to-day life of parishioners at St. Stephen, it's that the selection of his successor will stimulate discussion about and interest in Catholicism.
"When you bring a new pope in, it does create some excitement," he said.
Bob Bridwell, the Sanford/Lee County planning director who is studying to become a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church, also said he was shocked by the news. Bridwell is in his fourth year of a five-year program to become a permanent deacon — a way for men who aren't eligible for the priesthood, for instance because they're married, to enter the ministry — and has studied Scripture, philosophy, theology and other religious topics.
"We obviously follow the writings and teachings of the pope pretty closely," he said. "... I have great respect for him."
He acknowledged the odd nature of Benedict's resignation — the first papal resignation since 1415 — but said he understands. And although the news has caught everyone off guard, he added, God will provide guidance.
"We look forward to a very smooth and successful transition," he said.
Benedict, according to the Associated Press, called his choice "a decision of great importance for the life of the church."
Indeed, the move allows the Vatican to hold a conclave before Easter to elect a new pope, since the traditional nine-day period of mourning that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed.
It will also allow Benedict to hold great sway over the choice of his successor, although he will not vote himself. He has already hand-picked the bulk of the College of Cardinals — the princes of the church who will elect the next pope — to guarantee his conservative legacy and ensure an orthodox future for the church.
"Without doubt this is a historic moment," said Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a protege and former theology student of Benedict's who himself is considered a papal contender. "Right now, 1.2 billion Catholics the world over are holding their breath."
The Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted Benedict's decision, that he remained fully lucid and took his decision independently.
Benedict emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope requires "both strength of mind and body."
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited" to the demands of being the pope, he told the cardinals.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, a dispute among competing papal claimants. The most famous resignation was Pope Celestine V in 1294; Dante placed him in hell for it.
When Benedict was elected in 2005 at age 78, he was the oldest pope chosen in nearly 300 years. At the time, he had already been planning to retire as the Vatican's chief orthodoxy watchdog to spend his final years writing in the "peace and quiet" of his native Bavaria.
During his tenure, Benedict charted a very conservative course for the church, trying to reawaken Christianity in Europe where it had fallen by the wayside and return the church to its traditional roots, which he felt had been betrayed by an incorrect interpretation of the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
His efforts though, were overshadowed by a worldwide clerical sex abuse scandal, communication gaffes that outraged Jews and Muslims alike and, more recently, a scandal over leaked documents by his own butler. Many of his stated priorities as pope also fell short: he failed to establish relations with China, heal the schism and reunite with the Orthodox Church, or reconcile with a group of breakaway, traditionalist Catholics.
Contenders to be his successor include Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican's office for bishops.
Given half of the world's Catholics live in the global south, there will once again be arguments for a pope to come from the developing world.
There are several "papabile" in Latin America, though the most well-known, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, is considered far too liberal to be elected by such a conservative College of Cardinals.
Herald reporter Will Doran contributed to this report.