Several local Catholics, including prominent church officials, said Monday they were stunned by the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI would resign.
A pope hasn't resigned from the papacy in nearly 600 years.
“I thought it was a prank,” the Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese, told The Oklahoman.
“This news has caught all of us by surprise,” he said at a news conference at the Catholic Pastoral Center, 7501 Northwest Expressway.
The Rev. Rick Stansberry, pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church, said he, too, was shocked by the announcement. He noted that it came just a few days before Ash Wednesday.
“You know, we're supposed to give up stuff for Lent. Well, the pope trumped everybody: He gave up the papacy,” Stansberry said.
Indeed, the 85-year-old pope's announcement, made during a Monday meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprised even the pope's closest collaborators. Declaring that he lacked the strength to do his job, the pontiff said he will resign Feb. 28.
His decision sets the stage for a mid-March conclave to elect a new leader for the Catholic Church.
Benedict called his choice “a decision of great importance for the life of the church.”
Electing a successor
The move allows the Vatican to hold a conclave before Easter to elect a new pope, since the traditional nine days of mourning that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed.
There are several papal contenders in the wings but no obvious front-runner, the same situation when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
The Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted Benedict's decision, that he remained fully lucid and took his decision independently.
“Without doubt this is a historic moment,” Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a protege and former theology student of Benedict, said Monday.
“Right now, 1.2 billion Catholics the world over are holding their breath.”
In Oklahoma City, Coakley expressed similar sentiments at his news conference held to discuss Monday's juggernaut announcement from the Vatican. Coakley said the pope's resignation is “virtually unprecedented” so the Catholic world will be “learning together” what the path ahead will look like.
The archbishop also said he had been introduced to the pontiff several times, most notably during visits to Rome related to his papal appointment as archbishop of Oklahoma City in 2010.
Coakley praised Pope Benedict as a “wise and gentle shepherd” who “proved to be a different kind of man than many people had expected.” He said Benedict was being “very honest” about his diminished energy and advanced age.
Both Stansberry and the Rev. William Novak, pastor of St. John Nepomuk Catholic Church in Yukon, said they were impressed with the pope's humble ability to step away from his leadership role.
“He put the needs of the church over his own human need to stay in control,” Stansberry said. “It's always best to go at the top of your game.”
Novak said he was both shocked and saddened by the pope's announcement “because he has been a great pope.”
“He has been courageous in stepping down. I'm impressed by his love for the church and his love of Christ that he would set himself aside for what's best for the church.”
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, a dispute among competing papal claimants.
There are good reasons why others haven't followed suit, primarily because of the fear of a schism with two living popes.
The two metro-area priests said this first papal resignation in modern times will be educational in many ways because it is so uncommon. Nevertheless, they said the Lord will strengthen the Catholic Church during the time of papal transition.
“I'm sure there are a lot of questions, but the Holy Spirit is in charge of the church so we know we are in good hands,” Novak said.
Stansberry said: “It might set a precedent. It could change the papacy in the future because popes will realize they can retire.”
When Benedict was elected in 2005 at age 78, he was the oldest pope chosen in nearly 300 years. At the time, he already had been planning to retire as the Vatican's chief orthodoxy watchdog to spend his final years writing in the “peace and quiet” of his native Bavaria.
Caught off guard
Several lay Catholics across the metro area discussed the news from Rome with a sense of astonishment.
Ernesto Aguilar, of Oklahoma City, said he had not fully processed the pope's announcement, much less thought of who might become the next pope.
“I didn't know it was possible (to resign),” Aguilar, a member of St. Joseph Old Cathedral, said Monday.
“Like the whole sickness, I didn't know he was ill or anything. The news kind of caught me off guard.”
Nancy Harwell, an Edmond resident who attends Christ the King Catholic Church, said she, too, was shocked at the pope's announcement “because of the situation in our country these days. It made me wonder what's going to happen next.”
She said she is sad that Benedict is retiring, but the Catholic Church will be OK.
“He was a very strong holy leader, very orthodox, and that's what's going to remain. The church will stand.”
The Associated Press