Local Catholic leaders said they are shocked Pope Benedict XVI is resigning, but believe he is showing good judgement because he lacks the strength to handle the job.
Unlike other popes who remained in the post for life, Pope Benedict XVI is setting a precedent, said Thomas Groome, professor in the school of theology and ministry at Boston College.
“He is bringing the papacy into the 21st century, showing that when a pope is tired, they can retire or resign,” Groome said. “This is not a negative blow at all. It’s a very, very positive thing.’’
The pope said on Monday that he will leave the job Feb. 28 because at age 85, he lacks the strength to continue leading the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. He is the first pope to step down in 600 years.
“It shows he is a man who is deeply spiritual and aware of the needs of the church because he is willing to step aside,” said the Rev. Jerome Day, an English teacher at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. “It came as a surprise and even a shock. It’s also a bit disappointing because we came to love Pope Benedict.’’
Bishop William McNaughton of Lawrence understands the reasons Pope Benedict is retiring. McNaugton, who is four months older than the pope, retired himself after serving as a bishop in Inchon, Korea.
“Knowing what he does and how busy his agenda is, it’s imposible to do it healthwise,’’ McNaugton said.
McNaugton has met Pope Benedict four times. Last October, he was one of 12 bishops from the Second Vatican Council who met with the pontiff.
“He’s brilliant, one of the greatest theologians of the last 50 years, probably the greatest,” McNaugton said.
He said was able to speak with Pope Benedict for a few minutes and told the pontiff about his work in Korea.
“Please pray for me and pray for the church,” McNaugton remembers Pope Benedict telling him. “I had a feeling he was just exhausted. I thought it was a beautiful, simple expression.”
Although he has served for only eight years, Pope Benedict was praised by local Catholics for helping guide the church after the clergy sex abuse scandal.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston said “it was a great privilege” to be with the pontiff when he visited the United States in 2008 and met with several of the sex abuse victims.
“At that meeting, the Holy Father’s pastoral care for the survivors was clearly evident, as was his commitment and determination to heal the wounds of all persons impacted by the abuse crisis and to insure that the church continues to do all that is possible to provide for the protection of children,” O’Malley said in a statement.
The Rev. Bill Waters, a campus minister at Merrimack College, considers that meeting among Pope Benedict’s greatest moments.
“One of my most vivid memories of the pope was when he met with the (sex abuse) survivors because he was showing the care, concern and the sensitivity of the whole church to them,’’ Waters said. “I thought that was a beautiful moment.”
Others said he enlightened the faithful with his series of books and discourses, inspiring many people by his devotion and leadership.
Pope Benedict even adapted to new technology by going on Twitter and blogging.
The Rev. John Delaney, pastor of Sacred Hearts Parish in Haverhill, and other priests said they hope the College of Cardinals is guided by the Holy Spirit when choosing Pope Benedict’s successor.
Waters said the next pope could unite the people from different parts of the world.
“We need someone who is able to understand the church in many countries and many cultures, which takes a special gift,” he said.
“If the Holy Spirit inspires the cardinals to chose a pope from Africa or South America, that would be wonderful,” Groome said. “We need a bridge builder.’’
The Rev. Francis Mawn, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish at Holy Rosary Church in Lawrence, said Pope Benedict’s legacy will be his scholastics.
“He has a brilliant mind,” Mawn said.
Mawn said he was inspired by the pope and that he hopes the next pontiff is similar to Pope Benedict.
“We need someone who emphasizes church teachings and traditions,’’ Mawn said. “Hopefully, it will be someone younger so he can do more pastoral visits around the world.’’
The Rev. John Michalowski, pastor of Sts. Mary and Joseph Parish in Salem, said Pope Benedict’s encyclicals on Faith, Hope and Theology will be among his legacies.
“His deep love of Jesus Christ, his writings on Christ are ones that call us really to follow Christ,’’ Michalowski said. “There we find peace and our strength.’’
Contributing to this story was Staff Writer Alex Lippa.