For the first time in nearly 600 years, a pope has decided to step down from his position as head of the Roman Catholic Church. The decision announced Monday by Pope Benedict XVI is a hot topic of conversation around the world, especially among the more than 1 billion Catholics, including those in Attleboro.
Father Jon-Paul Gallant, pastor at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, respects Benedict's decision.
"In a tribute to his own recognition of the demand, both spiritually and physically, of being the pope, he took a courageous step by submitting his resignation," Gallant said.
Father Richard Wilson, pastor at St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent de Paul, said he was initially surprised by the announcement, but on reflection determined it wasn’t as shocking as it might seem.
"If you look back at what he had to say recently, you can see he was mulling over the idea," Wilson said.
Benedict, 85, announced his decision Monday morning during a meeting of Vatican cardinals. His resignation will take effect Feb. 28, and he is the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415. Benedict cited his advanced age and his "incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me" as the reasons for stepping down in the declaration that appears on the Vatican's website.
Wilson said in the past when a pope's health had deteriorated to a point he could no longer lead the church adequately, he would "fade into the background," but continue in his position as the official head of the Roman Catholic Church until the day he died.
"You can't do that anymore because today the pope is a much more prominent daily presence," Wilson said. "You need to have a pope who can be out there in front of the public all the time on a daily basis."
The former Joseph Ratzinger became pope in 2005, when he was elected following the death of John Paul II, who was a popular leader and had a lengthy reign.
"He followed a very big figure and did his best to fill his big shoes, and did a decent job of doing it," Gallant said.
Wilson said Benedict was not in an easy position as he followed in the footsteps of a charismatic man who had been an actor an athlete, while Benedict was more "professorial and bookish."
"That is not to say that John Paul II wasn’t an academic as well, he was, but they have contrasts," Wilson said. "It wasn't easy to succeed somebody who was so popular on the world stage. Also, John Paul II was a younger man when he became pope."
One contrast between the two men, Wilson said, is that Benedict's writings and speeches were often easier to understand than those of John Paul.
"In many ways, he has acted like a teacher, making it easy for people to understand the message," Wilson said.
Gallant said Benedict will be remembered as a theologian and teacher "who has deep love for the church and the teachings of church."
A new pope is expected to be elected before Easter, church leaders said. Whoever becomes the successor could be in a rare position of having a former pope to seek for guidance.
"You hear about U.S. presidents who like to speak to former presidents, despite political differences, because they are the only ones who can fully understand what they are going through," he said. "Popes have never been able to do that because the persons they succeeded had always died. This unique position for the next pope could be an advantage."