WATERVILLE — Pope Benedict XVI is the first pope to resign from the highest position in the Roman Catholic Church in hundreds of years, but changing times mean it will likely happen again in upcoming decades, according to a local historian of Catholicism.
The head of Waterville’s Corpus Christi Parish called the move by Benedict a “brave and courageous” precedent that will likely be emulated by some of Benedict’s successors.
Benedict, 85, surprised the Catholic community Monday morning by announcing his retirement, which takes effect Feb. 28. He cited health concerns as the reason for stepping down. The College of Cardinals will meet next month to select a new pope.
At Corpus Christi, the Rev. Joseph Daniels said he first heard of Benedict’s retirement while watching a morning news program. The announcement was so unexpected, he said, that he switched to another channel to see whether other stations were confirming the news.
“I was very surprised,” Daniels said, “but also with my knowledge and sense of Pope Benedict XVI and his great concern and care for the church, I also recognized that this was only characteristic of the Holy Father.”
The news spread quickly throughout the parish, said Daniels, and was discussed for much of the day.
“I am sure that in the weeks ahead we will be praying, both in thanksgiving for the ministry of Benedict XVI and for the election of a worthy successor,” Daniels said.
Daniels said Benedict’s retirement may be a sign of things to come.
“That is more likely in these modern times than ever before,” he said. “There are serious illnesses where persons through medical intervention could be kept alive, perhaps for years,” he said.
“We need, as a church, to have this means by which a pope can effect his resignation and step down for reasons of health.”
Larissa Taylor, a history professor at Colby College who specializes in Catholicism, called the resignation “shocking.” She agreed that it is likely to happen more frequently in the future, and not only because of advances in medical technology.
She said the Vatican has been beset by accusations of financial mismanagement and sex abuse, and is fighting a trend of declining church attendance.
“It makes a statement that a time comes when you need a strong manager, not only a spiritual leader,” she said.
Taylor, who is also past president of the American Catholic Historical Association, said the job is more physically demanding than it used to be because of the technological advances of the modern era.
“Travel around the world wasn’t possible until the fairly recent past,” she said. “It takes a greater toll.”
Taylor said Benedict’s decision might have been motivated by seeing the slow decline of Pope John Paul II, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease four years before his death in 2005.
While John Paul was known for his charisma and vitality, she said, Benedict was known for his analytical mind.
“Benedict is the intellectual theologian who really likes writing,” she said. “Some people have called him the reluctant pope.”
Taylor said Benedict’s legacy includes returning the church to some traditions as well as making advances in its ideas on the environment and economic justice.
Daniels said Benedict would be remembered both for his decision to resign and for 60 years of scholarship within the church.
Taylor and Daniels both said the world will be watching to see what the first living, retired pope will do with himself.
Daniels said that it is an unprecedented opportunity for Benedict to model a life of continued service to the church.
“What role if any does he play, presumably not overtly, but in the background?” Taylor said.
Taylor disagreed with a widely reported assertion that the resignation is the first in 600 years. When Pope Gregory XII resigned under intense political pressure from his position in 1415, it didn’t count as a resignation, she said, because “he had no real choice in the matter.”
Taylor said it is the first voluntary resignation in more than 700 years, when Pope St. Celestine V stepped down in 1294 after five months.
Bishop Richard Malone, apostolic administrator of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, released a statement in which he said the pope “did seem rather frail” during a November 2011 meeting.
Malone said the move was consistent with Benedict’s hallmark of “humility and pastoral concern in putting the good of the Church first.”
Malone, who was transferred to the Diocese of Buffalo by Benedict last year, also praised Benedict’s writings on God, truth and Jesus as inspirational.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287