Local Catholics said Monday that while they were surprised to learn Pope Benedict XVI had decided to resign from the papacy, they see his choice as a brave and unselfish move motivated by his commitment to his faith.
“Everyone is picking their jaws off the floor because no one was expecting this,” said the Rev. David Mickiewicz, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Oneonta.
“He is teaching all of us that we have limitations, and sometimes the best thing to do is pass on the torch,” the pastor added. “I think it is going to set a precedent for future pontiffs. I give Benedict a lot of credit for having the self-consciousness to look at himself and see how he has deteriorated, and to do what was best for the good of the church.”
He said the announcement by the 85-year-old Pope that he is retiring effective Feb. 28 because of deteriorating health may prompt discussion within the Roman Catholic Church to set a mandatory retirement age for the top clergyman.
The Church, he noted, requires bishops to retire upon reaching age 75.
“There is an aura around the Bishop of Rome because he is also the Pope that is not around any other Catholic bishop or any other bishop, Orthodox or Anglican,” Mickiewicz said. “Maybe some of that aura needs to be taken away. He is still a human being. He is still a bishop, and even though he is first among bishops, health and age take their toll.”
He said Pope Benedict will most likely be remembered for being the first Pope in some 600 years to resign from the high office. But he added that his legacy will also include his three papal encyclicals dealing with faith, hope and charity.
The pastor said it is not unlikely that the next pontiff will come from either South America or Africa, since it is in the Southern Hemisphere where the Catholic Church is experiencing its biggest growth.
The Rev. John Rosson, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Cooperstown, said in a statement that Benedict’s resignation shows that the office of Pope is more important than the person holding it.
“...We Catholics are not without a leader,” he said. “The leader is always Jesus Christ. His visible representative on Earth needs a replacement, not the head in Heaven.”
Anthony J. Casale of Cooperstown, a GOP political consultant, said when he and his wife, Theresa, attended a papal Mass in Rome in 2011, it was evident that Benedict appeared to lack physical stamina.
“We thought he looked very frail,” he recalled.
As for the announcement, Casale said, “The real story is that here is a beautiful person who put the church and the papacy ahead of himself and decided voluntarily to step aside. I’m sure it was a weighty and monumental decision on his part.”
Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, also lauded Pope Benedict for recognizing it was time to step down.
“He is the head of the Church, but he is also a human,” he said. “Everyone has limits in terms of the demands on their body and the demands emotionally. His job has to be one of the most demanding positions on this planet. God bless him, and we thank him for his service.”
Otsego County Democratic Chairman Richard Abbate said Benedict’s decision could set the stage for church leaders to frame a mandatory retirement age for future pontiffs and to find ways to make the Catholic Church “more inclusive,” especially since Mass attendance has fallen off in many places.
He suggested that there be a study of the celibacy mandate imposed on priests, in order to determine how it contributes to the pressures faced by priests in modern society.
“To have the Pope recognize his own limitations is a good thing,” Abbate said. “I hope we can get a younger Pope who will be around for a while and take the church to new levels. I’m looking forward to seeing what transpires in Rome.”
Frances Wright, director of the Otsego County Office of Aging, said those of advanced years such as Benedict often face “a big dilemma” when confronted with the question of when they should ratchet down their activities due to health frailties.
“There are a whole lot of choices we face as we get older, and to make those choices ourselves can actually help us to be independent longer,” she said. “This really brings to light the role of personal responsibility in making choices about when you should stop certain activities.”
Benedict’s resignation, coming out of the blue, is likely to trigger conversation within families regarding whether older relatives, whose reflexes have slowed, should continue to be driving their vehicles, said one medical expert.
“As a geriatrician, we deal with this often in talking to patients and families about driving capacity,” said Dr. Roy Korn, an internal medicine and geriatrics specialist at Bassett Medical Center and Cobleskill Regional Hospital. “With the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, I think it is very appropriate that this is on the radar screen.”