Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he will resign at the end of the month was received in Eastern Iowa with the same shock that resonated around the globe.
“Obviously, everyone is surprised,” said Father Walter Helms of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Coralville. “I don’t think anyone saw this coming.”
Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, noted that Benedict has said that he would resign if he felt he couldn’t do the job.
“He kind of set that out there,” Chapman said. “But certainly waking up (Monday) morning to that news was a big surprise.”
Benedict was elected pope on April 19, 2005, replacing the second longest-serving pope in history, John Paul II, who died in office in 2005.
John Paul was 84. Benedict is 85.
“He had a tough act to follow,” said Gov. Terry Branstad, who is a practicing Catholic. “Pope John Paul II was a very beloved and very charismatic leader, and Pope Benedict had to follow him just like I had to follow Bob Ray, and that’s never easy.”
Bishop Martin Amos of the Diocese of Davenport said in a statement released Monday that “Pope Benedict has led the Catholic Church during difficult times in our world with a deep spirituality and care for all of God’s people, especially those in most need. While Pope John Paul II chose to stay in office in order to give strength and dignity to people in the final stages of life, Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to allow a new pontiff to meet the strenuous demands of leading the church.”
Martin, who met Benedict last spring, describes him as a “warm and caring leader with a keen intellect who is concerned with what was happening in our diocese.”
Martin also noted that Benedict looked exhausted by his demanding schedule, an observation that corresponds with Benedict’s announcement, in which he said he no longer has the mental and physical strength to run the Roman Catholic Church.
“My reaction, after a lot of prayer, is that the pope always has my admiration and respect, but now it is at another level,” said the Rev. Dustin Vu of Blessed John XXIII in Cedar Rapids. “I have admiration for his strength and courage to walk away, to put the needs of the church first. This is not about the pope, this is about God. It is about His will to be done.”
While Benedict isn’t the first pope to stand down, it isn’t something that happens often.
The last pope to resign willingly was Celestine V in 1294 after reigning for only five months. Gregory XII reluctantly abdicated in 1415 to end a dispute with a rival claimant to the papacy.
“It’s unusual but it’s provided for in church law,” Chapman said.
A conclave will be called, during which members of the College of Cardinals gather and vote up to four times per day until they’ve elected a new pontiff. A new leader could be elected as soon as Palm Sunday on March 24.
Kristy Nabhan-Warren, the V.O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Fellow in Catholic Studies in the University of Iowa’s Department of Religious Studies, is curious to see who will be chosen.
“Many would say Benedict had some successes, but he’s also had challenges,” Nabhan-Warren said. “He’s had some criticism of his leadership.”
Conservative Catholics have lauded Benedict’s headship, while liberals have spoken against it, creating a divide in the church.
As a professor of religious studies, Nabhan-Warren encourages her students to ask questions, to think beyond their personal beliefs and explore others – a role she’d like to see the new pope emulate.
“True humanism – I’d like to see more of that,” she said. “My personal feeling is it would be nice to see someone who is more of a bridge builder.”
Rod Boshart of The Gazette's Des Moines Bureau contributed to this story.