Citing failing health and the rigors of the position, the 85-year-old leader of the Catholic Church declared from Vatican City on Monday, Feb. 11, that he will resign by Feb. 28.
When Benedict steps down from leading more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide, he will be the first pontiff since 1415 to leave the office before death. He succeeded John Paul II when the second-longest serving pope died in 2005.
It’s a decision that Monsignor Ivo Rocha, pastor of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church of Tracy, said made him both “sad” and “happy.”
While Rocha lamented losing “the theologian of the church for the past half-century,” he was glad Benedict was able to step away from the office before his strength and health collapsed.
“It took courage to make such a decision,” Rocha said.
Bill Ditewig, an ordained deacon with a doctorate in theology who is a dean executive professor of the subject at Santa Clara University, said on Tuesday, Feb. 12, that Benedict’s decision is virtually without precedent. The most recent pope to resign was Gregory XII, and his abdication was in part to heal a great rift in the 15th century church.
“I think this will wind up being (Benedict’s) real legacy,” Ditewig said. “He’s modeling a new way of leading, actually. To voluntarily retire because of admitting that he no longer has the strength to carry on competently now gives future popes a similar point of reflection.”
Benedict will be replaced by a vote of the College of Cardinals — bishops who have been granted special authority, according to church protocol.
Only 118 of the church’s total 209 cardinals — those younger than age 80 — will have votes.
Church doctrine states that the next pope must be a Catholic male who has reached the “age of reason,” but a successor is typically chosen from among the College of Cardinals.
The cardinals will be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel at Vatican City in Rome beginning mid-March in a process called conclave, according to statements from the church.
They are expected to choose a successor to Benedict before Easter, March 31.
Despite the uncertainty about who will be the next pope, Rocha is not worried for the church or the more than 7,000 families in St. Bernard’s parish.
“The church relies on the Holy Spirit,” he said. “The Holy Spirit will take care of it.”
After a 7:30 a.m. Ash Wednesday Mass on Feb. 13, St. Bernard’s parishioner Juanita Rodriguez, 70, was “surprised” Benedict chose to resign but hoped his successor would connect with the next generation of Catholics.
“(He should have) a really good relationship with the young people,” Rodriguez said. “I think that’s important — they’re our future.”
Also leaving the Eaton Avenue church was 81-year-old Marvin Barth, a parishioner there for five years. He said Benedict was a “steady influence” and will be missed no matter who succeeds him.
Though some thought Benedict was meant to only be a fill-in after the popular John Paul II, Barth said Benedict’s ministry stands on its own.
“I’m very sorry he’s resigning, because I think he was an outstanding pope,” Barth said. “I don’t think he was a placeholder. … He wanted to reinforce the church’s standing.”
• Contact Jon Mendelson at 830-4231 or firstname.lastname@example.org.