Catholics worldwide woke Monday to a shock: Pope Benedict XVI had announced his resignation.
The papal resignation is not unprecedented, but it hasn’t happened in centuries. Gregory XII was the most recent pope to resign. That was in 1415, when the question of who should lead the church was in dispute.
That’s not the case today. Fr. Bernie Weir, pastor of St. Mary of the Visitation in Ottumwa, said the pope’s resignation should not shake the faith of Catholics. Weir said the resignation came as a surprise but that change also allows for growth.
“It opens up lots of new opportunities for the church in the future,” he said.
Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected by the College of Cardinals in 2005 following the death of Pope John Paul II. There had been speculation about his predecessor’s possible resignation due to ill health, but that did not come about.
Bishop Martin Amos of the Davenport Diocese wrote on the diocesan website about his meeting with the pope.
“I met the Holy Father last spring during my regular visit to the Vatican. I found him to be a warm and caring leader with a keen intellect who is concerned with what was happening in our diocese. Both Msgr. John Hyland, VG and I also thought he looked very tired from his very extensive and demanding schedule,” he wrote.
Bishop Richard Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines called Benedict's decision “courageous.” The pope surprised everyone, he said, but made his decision after serving as long as he physically could before breaking with tradition and stepping down.
Local reactions were generally supportive. Diana Till of Hedrick wrote on the Courier’s Facebook page that Benedict’s decision reflected “a wise man.
“Using common sense ... He is old and needs a break ... Good for him,” she wrote.
Stacy Matusick of Ottumwa called Pop Benedict, “a man of the church,” and urged against speculation about why he resigned.
Benedict himself cited age in his resignation. He said “both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Some aspects of what comes next are known. Popes are selected by the College of Cardinals in a conclave at the Vatican. Benedict’s resignation takes effect Feb. 28, and the conclave must begin within 15-20 days of the papacy becoming vacant.
Cardinals under age 80 can vote in the conclave. A two-thirds majority is required to elect a pope.
There is no set time for a conclave. The longest lasted more than two years beginning in 1268. The shortest have lasted a matter of days. The Vatican has said it hopes to have a new pope elected by Easter, which falls on March 31 this year, though officials emphasize it is a target rather than a deadline.
But what of Benedict himself? It has been centuries since a pope had his predecessor watching as he took office.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Pates said, “but I’m sure the pope [Benedict] will exercise discretion.”
Benedict’s resignation pointed to a future “dedicated to prayer.”
Reactions at Seton Catholic School
Reactions to Pope Benedict’s resignation weren’t quite what you might expect at Seton Catholic School in Ottumwa.
Students were told about the announcement following the morning’s prayer service. Principal Julie Gentz said a few had caught the news earlier, one even knew it had been about 600 years since the last papal resignation, but for most it was the first they heard about the start of a process that will elect a new pope.
“We felt like this would be a really good teachable moment,” Gentz said.
So the discussion focused largely on the process, the conclave that will select Benedict’s successor.
Of course, the concerns of schoolchildren aren’t always the same as adults. The fact the College of Cardinals is kept apart from the public caused some concern.
“You mean they lock them in there!?” was one reaction, said Gentz.
It doesn’t work quite like that, she explained. It’s in the Sistine Chapel and, yes, the cardinals are allowed food, though they are sequestered within the Vatican.
There are currently 118 cardinals under age 80, thus eligible to vote at the conclave. But with four reaching that age before the end of March, the number could change before a new pope is elected. In fact, it’s possible it could change during the conclave.
Four votes are held each day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. A two-thirds majority is needed to elect a new pope.
Gentz said parents can play a role in helping their children understand what’s happening. The election of a pope is a rare event. If parents are interested, there’s a better chance their children will remember it for years to come.
“I think it will be really interesting for them to see the process,” she said. “It really is history in the making.”