Pope's abdication suprises local congregation

Feb. 12, 2013 @ 06:54 PM

Pope Benedict XVI will be only the fifth pope to retire when he abdicates on Feb. 28. 

He announced Monday that he would retire because he felt he lacked the strength to continue with the job due to his age. He is the first pope to resign since 1415. 

“(It was) a complete surprise to me,” Benjamin A. Roberts, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Monroe, said. “(It) looked to be a surprise to the cardinals gathered in the room.” 

Roberts’ parish had spent the weekend celebrating the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. 

“They were quite surprised,” Roberts said. “It came as quite a shock.”

Roberts assured his parish that even though the pope had resigned, the bishop of Charlotte would remain in place and Roberts would remain in place. 

“And the gospel continues to be proclaimed,” he said. 

Most people announce retirement in their twilight years. However, it is exceedingly rare for popes. 

“The expectation is that the office is for life,” Roberts said. However, they do have the right to resign, he added. “The law of the church has always provided for that.” 

Heather McDivitt, an assistant professor of religion at Wingate University, said Benedict may have been influenced by his predecessor.

“When he saw how John Paul really deteriorated and he really wasn’t able to fill his role ... I think that leaves a void in the Catholic leadership,” McDivitt said. “I think that (Joseph) Ratzinger, now Benedict, following John Paul’s slow decline wanted to be different ... he respected the role as pope as the leader as a very engaged, influential teacher-leader and I think out of respect for that position, he wanted to make sure he was fit for it.”

McDivitt wondered if Benedict would set a precedent for the future.

Roberts explained that the pope is the successor of Saint Peter, whose role in the early church was to “confirm the brethren” or lead the church.

“He is the sign of unity for the world,” Roberts said. “His is a ministry of unity, it’s a ministry of teaching, it’s a ministry of governance.” 

The pope is the supreme governing authority of the Catholic Church. He is prayed for every day and will form time to time issue official teaching documents, in addition to addresses given on Sundays and Wednesdays, Roberts said. 

“He’s the chief shepherd of the flock,” he said. 

In the time between the pope’s resignation and the appointment of a new pope, the Cardinal Secretary of State will exercise some of the head of state functions until a new pope is chosen. 

“It will be his job to summon the College of Cardinals together,” Roberts said. 

Any major decisions will be left for the next pope and the the cardinals will keep things moving and prepare for conclave, he added. 

The conclave will be watched very carefully, while people wait for white or black smoke to show if a new pope has been named.

“I think it’s very exciting and I think for most people wanting to see the new leader, it’s such a unique process and it’s such a historic process that happens so rarely,” McDivitt said. 

Odds have already been established on some prominent cardinals and archbishops throughout the world by an Irish sportbetting website. There are also heated debates in Catholic forums. 

McDivitt wondered if the cardinals would choose a pope from outside of Europe. Some of the favorites on the website are Canadian and from Africa. 

Roberts was ordained during Pope Benedict’s papacy. 

“I’m grateful for Pope Benedict’s ministry and certainly for his example,” Roberts said. 

He said the toughest thing for a leader is to acknowledge when it is time to hand the office to another.

“(I am) so moved by Pope Benedict’s humility, more than I am by his brilliance ... the example that he gives as a man of prayer and truly a servant of God.” 

While there is speculation and there are favorites, Roberts said that “God has already chosen the next pope.” 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.