People throughout the Diocese of Rochester expressed shock Feb. 11 at Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he would resign at month’s end.
Syracuse Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, who has been serving as Rochester’s apostolic administrator since September, said Pope Benedict appeared to be feeling his 85 years when they concelebrated an Oct. 21 Mass marking the canonization of St. Marianne Cope and several other new saints.
“He’s moving a little slower than he did, but mentally he’s alert and very sharp,” said Bishop Cunningham.
Bishop Cunningham said the resignation shows the pope’s great love for the church in ensuring a seamless transition to a new pontiff.
“I admire the Holy Father for the courage and humility he exhibited in realizing his limitations, and his great love for the church in seeing that the work of the church goes on without any interruption,” he said.
Bishop Cunningham said he did not know if there was any particular significance to the timing of the pope’s announcement of his resignation, which took place during a gathering of cardinals at an ordinary consistory.
“I had heard some stuff through the grapevine that his health was declining, but like everyone else, I was blindsided,” said Nazareth College history professor Timothy Thibodeau.
He said the announcement reverberated not only among the world’s Catholics but with non-Catholics across the globe as well because the Catholic Church remains the largest Christian denomination in the world.
“Like nearly everyone I’ve talked to, it sort of knocked the breath out of me,” said Maryknoll Father Curt Cadorette, the John Henry Newman Associate Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Rochester. “There was not anything that was in the rumor mill, for sure. In some ways, I’m moved by his resignation because it is an exhausting job, and he recognizes he doesn’t have the capacity to do what it requires. It puts a human face on him, which is all for the good.”
Father Kevin McKenna, pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester, said his first reaction to the announcement — which he learned about through a text message — was shock, since it is such a rare occurrence.
“We haven’t seen this take place since the Middle Ages,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised to the extent that in observing him while he’s on television celebrating papal Masses, he seems to be declining in health. He is slowing down. He needs a great deal more assistance than when he first became pope.”
The announcement also reverberated in the Rochester Diocese, which has been awaiting the pope’s appointment of a new bishop. The diocese has been without a bishop since Sept. 21, when Pope Benedict accepted the resignation of Bishop Matthew H. Clark and appointed Bishop Cunningham apostolic administrator.
Bishop Cunningham said he didn’t know if the transition to a new pope would slow the search for Rochester’s next bishop.
“The process I understand is ongoing,” he said. “Probably within a month or so we will have a new pope, and I don’t know if it will have any effect on the process.”
Bishop Emeritus Clark, speaking at a Feb. 11 news conference, said he likewise didn’t have an answer as to whether the transition could slow the process.
“The pope could say, ‘Well, look, I’d like to clear the slate as much as possible for my successor, why don’t we look at the vacant dioceses in the world and … see if we could expedite it before a successor is named,’” Bishop Clark said. “Or he could do the opposite. From the time of his resignation on Feb. 28 to the installation of a new pope, my guess would be we couldn’t expect movement in that area. My guess is it would probably lengthen the time.”
Father McKenna said the transition that the global church will experience with Pope Benedict’s resignation mirrors that of what the local church is experiencing.
“There can’t be new initiatives until the new pope is elected,” he noted.
He also said the next few weeks will be a time of intense prayer and gratitude to Pope Benedict for his ministry, as well as prayer for the cardinals in the conclave when they gather in March.
Thibodeau said that Pope Benedict’s resignation is truly unprecedented in modern times. Gregory XII was the last pope to resign, and his resignation in 1415 was intended to end the Great Schism, during which two, and then three, competing popes were in office at the same time. Instead of the College of Cardinals electing a new pope, in that instance there was an ecumenical council called the Council of Constants, which elected the new pontiff.
Additionally, there was a resignation in 1294 of Celestine V, an 80-year-old hermit who was reluctant to be pope and was eventually compelled by others to do so. He was pitted between two competing families, overwhelmed by the demands of the office and the competition of two families before being forced out of office after five months, Thibodeau said. Pope Benedict prayed at Celestine V’s tomb in L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009.
Thibodeau noted that like Celestine V, Pope Benedict had expressed some reluctance in assuming the papal office, possibly because of the example set by his predecessor.
“He had an impossible job of following the most charismatic, telegenic pope — when he was the exact opposite — and trying to compete with the public persona of John Paul II,” Thibodeau said.
He said he believes Pope Benedict’s most enduring legacy will be that he chose to resign — possibly setting a precedent for future popes.
Father McKenna, a canon law scholar, noted that the Code of Canon Law makes provisions for a pope to resign, so although the church has not seen a resignation in centuries, Pope Benedict is within the law to do so.
Bishop Clark noted that John Paul II, Pope Benedict’s predecessor, chose to witness how to die with dignity.
“I still admire that, but I no less admire Benedict’s choice,” Bishop Clark noted. “To me that would be the most desired way to do it.”
Bishop Cunningham said Pope Benedict’s legacy will include his great teaching ability, and he noted the pope leaves a wealth of homilies, speeches, books and other writings explaining and exploring church teachings for the benefit of generations to come.
“As time goes by, people will come to appreciate his depth of teaching and his clarity of teaching,” Bishop Cunningham said.
“He has been steadfast in recognizing that the Roman Catholic Church, the Christian churches, and Islam, should do everything possible to join together at their deepest values in a world that’s torn up by lots of conflict and sectarian strife,” Bishop Clark said.
He said he believes Pope Benedict also will be remembered strongly for the emphasis he put on writing and teaching both before and during his papacy. He said he was surprised to learn that Pope Benedict drew larger crowds for his Wednesday audiences than Pope John Paul II did.
“(Pope Benedict’s) talks are in a much simpler language, they address the range of ordinary human concerns, and they’re put in a very cordial and inviting way, in contrast to John Paul II’s style,” said Bishop Clark, who also noted that Pope Benedict wrote several books as pope that went on to be best-sellers.
Father McKenna said he believes Pope Benedict’s three volumes on Jesus Christ and his encyclicals of Catholic social teaching about treatment and support of the poor will be studied for years to come.
“I think he’ll be remembered for his spirituality,” Father McKenna said. “I think he’s a very spiritual man. I think he’ll be remembered for his academics. He’s a scholar, and I think that when he was serving as the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he tried to resign a couple times from that, possibly because I think he wanted to return to the academic world.”
When Pope Benedict took office at the age of 78, some pundits predicted that he would simply be a “caretaker” pope, said Richard E. Barnes, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops in matters of public policy.
“Instead, he became a historic figure in his own right through his theological writings; his compassion for suffering people, particularly victims of clergy sexual abuse; his commitment to interfaith dialogue; his embrace of social media; and his tireless continuation of the new evangelization,” Barnes said in a statement.
Father McKenna said the new pope will be faced with many challenges.
“I’m looking for someone who will be a great listener,” he said. “I think there are so many complex situations and problems that are going to face the new pope. He has to be able to spend time listening to what those concerns are, and the needs of the people at this particular moment in the church.”
Pope Benedict has had an intense focus on countering increasing secularization of Europe, Father Cadorette said, noting that it remains to be seen whether the next pope will have the same priorities.
“I think there is a question as to whether continuity will be seen as a priority with the cardinals, or whether they will elect someone with a different skill set, perhaps from a developing country,” he said. “It’s way too early to predict anything.”
He said it is too early to predict names — and those names that come to the surface almost invariably mean nothing.
“Hopefully he will have a clean slate to do what he feels is most important,” Father Cadorette said of a new pope.
Contains reporting by Jennifer Burke.Tags: Pope Benedict XVI