Church leaders react to pope’s resignation

For many, the news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation came as a surprise Monday. Others said they were aware of the pope’s deteriorating health and commended him for placing the needs of the church first if he is not able to continue meeting the demands of his position.

Benedict announced that he would resign Feb. 28, the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.

The Rev. Richard Murphy, president of Ursuline High School in Youngstown who taught religion for 22 years, said he was very moved when he heard of 85-year-old Pope Benedict’s upcoming resignation. Murphy said he believes Benedict may be setting a precedent that popes no longer serve until they die.

”It was a very humble and meaningful gesture for him to put the ministry of the pope’s office and the needs of the church ahead of himself. He is being very responsible in his service,” Murphy said.

He noted the pope is required to travel throughout the world, which would become more and more difficult if one’s health is declining. Before dying in office in 2005, Pope John Paul II spent his final years in declining health, not able at times to attend or be at events, Murphy said.

Murphy said after Benedict leaves office, he will return his baptized name of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger.

”This is really unprecedented in the church’s history for a pope to resign,” he said. ”The norm has been that most popes have died in office instead of resigning. What has happened is very rare and new and could possibly become the new norm.”

He and other local religious leaders noted Benedict’s successor will have something few others ever did, which is a living mentor.

Bishop George Murry of the Diocese of Youngstown said of Benedict, ”Citing his advanced age and deteriorating health, his decision is understandable and a noble one but nonetheless a great loss for the church.

”Benedict has been a courageous voice for the rights of the poor, a consistent defender of human life, and a champion of religious liberty for people of all faiths,” Murry said.

“When you meet with him, you know he enjoys being with people and he wants to be of service,” he said. ”I think his decision is rooted in his concern about the future of the church.”

Murry said Benedict’s love of the United States was evident when he visited Washington and New York in 2008.

”At that time, not only did he meet with President Bush and the American bishops and hundreds of thousands of people, but also spent time offering solace to a group of victims of sexual abuse by clerics,” he said.

Murry said he last met with Benedict a year ago.

The Rev. Thomas Elsweirth, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Warren, said he was surprised but expects the church to be able to go through the transition.

”We as a faith community have gone through transitions like this with the death of a pope. We may not know the exact situation with the Pope Benedict’s health, but he has had to cut back on doing things,” Elsweirth said.

Susan Trewella, campus minister at Cardinal Mooney High School, said this will be something new for the history books as a pope hasn’t resigned since Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.

Trewella said it will be interesting to see who the cardinals select, with there being many contenders.

”This has happened very suddenly,” she said. ”They will be selecting someone to lead the church in the 21st century.”

Trewella said for Ash Wednesday this week, there will be special prayers at the parish school said for the pope.

Benedict emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope – the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide – requires “both strength of mind and body.” He said that at his advanced age, he was no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the ministry.

Benedict at the time of his selection was the oldest man chosen as pope in nearly 300 years.

Murry said, ”I am deeply grateful to Pope Benedict for his witness of service to the church and for the example of his personal holiness. I pray that he will enjoy a peaceful retirement, and I ask all men and women of good will to pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as the cardinals choose a new pope.”