WOONSOCKET – Pope Benedict XVI caught Blackstone Valley Catholics by surprise when he announced his retirement for health reasons Monday, but most said they supported and even admired what must have been a difficult decision.
“I was proud of him,” said the Rev. Edward St-Godard, pastor of Holy Family Parish. “When they say they’re stepping down because they can no longer function, I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
It may be a time-honored tradition for popes to reign until death, despite the impairments of old age, but Father St-Godard can think of no compelling reason why. Hobbled by Parkinson’s disease and the lingering damage of an assassin’s bullet, Pope John Paul II was often exalted as an earthly example of the suffering of Christ, but St-Godard says it wasn’t always as uplifting to see as it sounds.
“It was uncomfortable when you saw that,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to see your father up there that way.”
Rev. Robert Perron, pastor of Pawtucket’s Holy Family Church, came to a similar conclusion.
Pope John Paul II was a laudable example of how suffering can bring one closer to the Lord, he allows. As John Paul’s former right-hand man in the Vatican, however, Benedict must have realized that this is not an example that requires further reaffirmation at this point in the history of the church.
“I think he was saying to us we don’t need another example, that we need someone who can do the job,” said Rev. Perron.
The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Bavaria, now 85, stunned Catholics around the world yesterday when he announced at the Vatican that he will step down at the end of the month because of unspecified health reasons.
“I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he said in remarks originally rendered in Latin. “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.”
In today’s world, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” the pope said.
Pope since April 19, 2005, Benedict is the first in over 600 years to abdicate the papacy. Cardinals from around the world will converge at the Vatican on Feb. 28 to select his successor in a secret voting process known as the papal conclave.
Reporting from Rome, the Catholic News Service said that after Benedict steps down, the pope will move to the papal villa in Castel Gandolfo outside the Italian capital. He will stay there until the renovation is completed of a cloister, set up by Pope John Paul II, which is located inside the Vatican Gardens.
The pope will then live in the cloister, known as the Mater Ecclesia monastery, dedicating his time to prayer and reflection, the CNS said, quoting a Vatican spokesman.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence was probably speaking for a great many Catholics when he announced his reaction to Benedict’s retirement.
“I was stunned by the news that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI will resign his office at the end of the month,” Bishop Tobin said.
The bishop, too, praised Benedict for stepping down in the face of increasingly apparent physical frailty, calling it “an act of great humility, for he understands the needs of the Church are greater than his own; that ultimately, the well-being of the Church is in God’s hands, not the Pope’s.”
Not all Catholic leaders from the area were ready to hold up the pope’s resignation as a model for papal behavior, however. The Rev. Richard P. Desaulniers, pastor of St. James parish in Lincoln, was still trying to wrap his arms around what happened.
“I really don’t know his motivation because it’s so out of the ordinary,” he said. “Usually popes stay on despite their limitations, physically or mentally.”
But Benedict’s choice also got a robust endorsement from the Rev. Charles H. Galligan, pastor of St. Edward’s parish in Pawtucket.
“God Bless Pope Benedict for being able to recognize his personal limitations,” he said.
By stepping aside, Rev. Galligan said, the pope has set the stage for the Holy Spirit to select his successor through the sacred process of the papal conclave, which he lauded as the right thing to do.
Rev. St-Godard hopes the voting cardinals at the conclave pick someone who is in tune with the modern world and open to change, perhaps someone like his hero, the late Pope John Paul XXIII, who served in the late 50s and early 60s before his death from cancer.
He convened the first Vatican Council in nearly a century, resulting in an overhaul of the liturgy and stronger ties between Roman Catholics and other Christian religions.
The church needs someone “who can bring us into dialogue with the world, because the world has changed so much,” he said.