AUGUSTA — Local Catholic leaders were surprised Monday to hear that Pope Benedict XVI would be resigning at the end of the month, but said it seemed like a reasonable decision, considering the 85-year-old pope’s health.

The Rev. Francis Morin, administrator of St. Michael Parish in Augusta, said the pope was likely thinking that it would be better to step down now instead waiting until he was incapacitated.

“It’s kind of a realistic approach on his part, I think,” Morin said. Still, he said, “it was surprising to hear on the radio this morning.”

Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, announced his resignation Monday during a meeting of Vatican cardinals. In his statement to the cardinals, Benedict said his deteriorating health and strength has left him unable to perform his duties, and he would resign effective Feb. 28.

The Rev. George Hickey, pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Hallowell, said he respects Benedict for the decision and hopes the next pope will lead the church to be more open and do more outreach, though Hickey would not provide specific examples.

“The Lord says God shows no partiality, and I’d like to see that for our church, as a motto. That we show no partiality, that we welcome all people,” Hickey said.

Hickey said he thinks the church has done this, but some people still feel left out.

The Rev. Ralph Boisvert, a retired pastor of St. Michael Parish, said the announcement surprised him because there wasn’t any warning or hint that the pope would step down. He said church parishioners were talking about the news at the 7:30 a.m. Monday Mass he attended at St. Monica’s Chapel in Augusta.

“I see it as definitely a positive thing because he was able to acknowledge he wasn’t feeling well. He was feeling tired and wasn’t able to keep up like he wanted to,” Boisvert said.

It’s the first time in more than half a millennium that a pope has stepped down from the top position in the Roman Catholic Church, according to the Associated Press.

The head of Watervile’s Corpus Christi Parish, The Rev. Joseph Daniels, called the move a “brave and courageous” precedent that will likely be emulated by at least some of Benedict’s successors as advances in medical technology keep people alive longer.

Daniels said he first heard of Benedict’s retirement while watching a morning news program and he was so surprised 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.”

In a statement released Monday, Bishop Richard Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland thanked the pope for his service. Last year, Malone was transferred to the Diocese of Buffalo by Pope Benedict and Maine is awaiting the appointment of a new, full-time bishop.

While speaking Monday at the Mercy Center in Buffalo, N.Y., Malone said the news didn’t completely surprise him because of the pope’s condition when Malone met him in November 2011 at the Vatican.

“I remember that he seemed more frail than I thought he would be,” Malone said in an audio recording released Monday by the Diocese of Portland. “I certainly had no knowledge that this was coming. No one did. I don’t even think the cardinals in this country who are his closest collaborators knew about it. Everybody was caught by surprise.”

The College of Cardinals will hold a conclave in Vatican City by the end of March to select a new pope.

Larissa Taylor, a history professor at Colby College who specializes in Catholicism studies, called the resignation “shocking” and agreed that it is likely to happen more frequently in the future, and not only because of advances in medical technology.

She said that the Vatican has been beset by accusations of financial mismanagement 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 that the job of pope is more physically demanding than it used to be because of modern technological advances.

“Travel around the world wasn’t possible until the fairly recent past,” she said. “It takes a greater toll.”

Boisvert, the retired pastor from St. Michael Parish, said there’s “no clear person” to become the next pope, but he said the process will be spirit-driven and people should “trust that God has a plan.”

Staff writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling contributed to this report.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
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