By CARL E. FEATHER - firstname.lastname@example.org
Parishioners who celebrated Mass at Ashtabula County parishes Monday morning focused their prayers on Roman Catholicism’s leader, Pope Benedict XVI, who announced earlier in the day that he will resign at the end of this month.
The announcement caught local priests and parishioners off guard, although it is well known that the pope’s 85 years and grueling schedule have taken their toll.
“Every spiritual leader realizes his human limitations,” observed the Rev. Melvin E. Rusnak of Assumption Church in Geneva. “He’s done a good job for us.”
Rusnak learned the news from parishioners who came for Mass on Monday morning.
“They were all saying ‘Did you hear?’ It was a surprise,” Rusnak said.
At Our Lady of Peace, Ashtabula County’s largest parish, the Rev. Raymond Thomas heard the news on the radio as he was preparing for his day. He decided to change the liturgy for Monday and substituted a Mass for the Holy Father; Monday was a feast day, Our Lady of Lourdes, and that Mass was planned.
“They were all surprised,” Thomas said of his parishioners’ reaction. “They offered Mass for the Holy Father and they offered prayers for him.”
Local priests said they had not heard any rumblings that a resignation announcement would be coming from Vatican City.
“I had no indication,” said the Rev. Matthew Albright, priest of Our Lady of Victory in Andover and St. Patrick’s in Kinsman. He announced the news during Mass on Monday morning.
“Most people are understanding across the board,” he said. “They are shocked, people are very surprised, but understanding and a little bit sorrowful.”
Albright said he is confident that the pope made the decision because he wanted to “put the needs of the church before his own needs, so the work of the church can continue in the best way possible.”
“We will miss him,” Albright added. “He is a great spiritual leader, a holy man. He’s done a great deal for the church.”
Bishop George V. Murry of the Youngstown Diocese issued a statement Monday afternoon. He called Benedict “a courageous voice for the rights of the poor, a consistent defender of human life, and a champion of religious liberty for people of all faiths.”
“In his many speeches he has called us to be faithful to eternal truths rather than be swayed by relativism. Through his extensive writings he has set before us a clear invitation to come to know Jesus Christ personally and experience the salvation only He can offer.”
Benedict visited the United States in 2008 and celebrated Mass at Yankee Stadium. Albright was among the priests who assisted with the communion.
“I saw him from about 100 feet away. I was there in the crowd as a priest,” Albright said.
“At that time, not only did he meet with President Bush and the American bishops and hundreds of thousands of people, but also spent time offering solace to a group of victims of sexual abuse by clerics,” Murry said.
Fellow cardinals elected Benedict in 2005 following the death of John Paul II. Benedict, by resigning while still in the papacy, becomes the first pope to do so in six centuries.
Albright said he feels that Benedict will be remembered for his commitment to build unity in the church by teaching “the truth of the faith in a way that is clear and understandable.” First and foremost a theologian, Benedict is a conservative whose passion has been to infuse Catholics with an intellectual understanding of the faith that leads to a “better relationship to God,” Albright said.
“He’s a brilliant theologian and his teachings are so clear. I read one of his books while in high school. He writes in a deep and meaningful way,” Albright said.
“He was a fabulous theologian,” Thomas said.
“He’s a humble, brilliant theologian who is very respected, worldwide,” Rusnak said.
Thomas feels Benedict also will be remembered for his use of social media to “reach out to people who live in that world.”
Benedict will serve until the end of this month. It will be up the 116 cardinals to select from among themselves the successor.
“I am deeply grateful to Pope Benedict for his witness of service to the Church and for the example of his personal holiness,” Murry said. “I pray that he will enjoy a peaceful retirement, and I ask all men and women of good will to pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as the Cardinals choose a new pope.”
“It will be exciting to see what the Holy Spirit will do,” Albright said.