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.