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‘What?!’ Pope’s announcement takes most by surprise

By RENEE WEBB, Globe editor
(Email Renee)

Surprise and shock seem to be the words of choice to describe reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation.
For Bishop Walker Nickless there was nothing like a bit of big news to jar him awake.

“Every morning I have my alarm set to Catholic radio,” said the bishop. “At 10 minutes after 5, it went off and they announced, ‘We have breaking news. Pope Benedict XVI has resigned.’ And I thought, ‘What? Did I hear that right? Am I still sleeping? Am I dreaming?’”

It didn’t take long for the full report to be broadcast and for the bishop to realize that he wasn’t dreaming. The pope had resigned and his last day in office will be Feb. 28.

“I was totally shocked and everyone that I have talked to has been,” the bishop said. “We did not see this coming.”

While Bishop Nickless heard the news right as the story was breaking, for Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, former bishop of Sioux City, it took a little longer to get the news because he was on a flight returning home to Houston following time in Rome.

At a press conference on Feb. 12, he acknowledged that he had been absolutely unaware of the news until 3:30 p.m. (Feb. 11) when the plane landed in Washington, D.C.

“Some of you who fly internationally know that as soon as you land everyone turns back on their cell phones,” said Cardinal DiNardo, who noted that it was the person sitting next to him that told him the pope had resigned. “I said, ‘What?’ That was my first knowledge of this.”

The cardinal said that in addition to being surprised by the news, he was also a little saddened.

“At the same time, the Holy Father was clear and precise on his reasons for resigning,” said Cardinal DiNardo, who added that the ministry of governing the ship of Peter and proclaiming the Gospel involve “strength of mind and body that due to his advancing age the Holy Father senses he can no longer fulfill with the vigor required.”

The cardinal is one of 11 from the United States who will be among the 117 cardinals to elect a new pope.
Deacon David Esquiliano, a seminarian of the Diocese of Sioux City who is studying in Rome at the North American College, noted that he had just gotten back from class and was getting ready to go to lunch when he checked the news and saw that CNN and Vatican Radio were announcing the pope's resignation.

“I couldn't believe it, but then a friend called me and confirmed what I was reading,” he said. While his first reaction was disbelief, the seminarian then “got concerned for the health of the Holy Father, and this led me to pray for him and his successor.”

For Msgr. Kevin McCoy, pastor at Holy Trinity Parish of Webster County, upon hearing the news he offered thanks to the Lord for the example of Benedict and his faithful fidelity in responding to God’s call.

“You have to respect the humility he has to examine his own human frailties to know that he has reached the point where he doesn’t have the energy, the strength to be able to continue and provide the service in the See of Peter,” he said. “It takes great courage to pass on that responsibility.”

Reflecting on the decision

While the initial reaction was surprise and shock, it didn’t take long for the leaders to begin to reflect on the pope’s announcement.

“I began to think about the ad limina visit that the bishops of Iowa made to the Holy Father last March about a year ago,” Bishop Nickless said. “At the time of our visit I commented then that the pope looked very tired and a bit worn out when we met with him. That could have been for a lot of reasons but now when I hear this news, it seems to make sense. His mind was fine but he looked tired and as if the weight of the office was on his shoulders.”

Another clue that the pope had been considering this, noted the bishop, was a recent interview the Holy Father had with an author that if the pope ever does feel as though he is incapable of carrying on his duties then he should resign.

“He told the cardinals when he was elected that you shouldn’t do this to me because he felt he was too old then,” Bishop Nickless said. “But he said the will of the church was more important.”

The will of the church, he stressed, is what it all comes down to.

Bishop Nickless called the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI a brave and wise move.

“To have all of the power that the papacy holds and to be willing for one reason and one reason only – the good of the church – shows a great deal of courage and bravery and a great deal of humility,” he said. “I look at the Holy Father as again giving us a lesson by his example of understanding when he has reached his limits and for the good the church he wants to let go of the reins for a younger man to follow him.”

Cardinal DiNardo echoed that same sentiment.

The pope’s actions, the cardinal noted, speak of the pontiff’s “great devotion and love for the church, his wonderful humility and his always generous leadership of the church.”

He pointed out when he was in Rome last week, the Holy Father looked good but that was in contrast to when Cardinal DiNardo was in Rome last November when he felt the pope did not look well.

With those two contrasting things happening, Cardinal DiNardo speculated that it must have played a part in the pope’s decision.

“After eight years in the ministry of Peter, he had great serenity of mind at a time when it was necessary to resign,” he said.

This decision, bottom line, added the bishop, shows how much the pope loves the church.

“He wants the church to continue to grow and he knows they need someone younger than him,” Bishop Nickless said.

Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy

“One of the things I admired most about Benedict was his role as a teacher. He was known to be a scholar and he had this unique ability to take complex doctrines and teachings of the church and translate them into something the ordinary person in the pew could understand,” Bishop Nickless said. “He was a true teacher, true scholar, enabling him to share his abilities with everyone not just intellectuals.”

Pope Benedict XVI will always be important to Bishop Nickless because he was the pope who appointed him as Bishop of Sioux City and he looked to the pontiff’s example for lessons on how to be a bishop.

“I’ve always looked to him to learn how to be a bishop,” he said. “I had the privilege of meeting him three or four times in these last seven years and each time he was gentle, humble, kind, pastoral – a wonderful spiritual father to so many.”

Cardinal DiNardo pointed out that Pope Benedict’s papacy has been marked by some wonderful encyclicals such as Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), pilgrimages to strengthen the faith of local churches, great care for peace and care for the poor and suffering.

“His papacy has also been marked by his vision for the new evangelization and deeper attachment to the person of Jesus Christ by all the clergy and the faithful,” the cardinal said. “He has been a genuine apostolic leader of the faith and we are all grateful for his governance, his astute theological mind, his great charity and visibility for the Catholic Church.”

Starting the Year of Faith, noted the bishop, is something the pope felt he should do and if he couldn’t finish it himself, he knows the Lord will take care of it.

“His other great legacy is his ability to see the signs of the times. He has talked about the dictatorship of relativism. The Holy Father has continually pointed out that we must have a moral compass,” said Bishop Nickless, who noted that one of the purposes of the Year of Faith is to promote a new evangelization and help parishioners become revitalized in their faith.

Climate in Rome

Msgr. McCoy was in Rome for the last three conclaves. He was a student at the North American College with the death of Pope Paul VI in the late 1970s.

“I was present in the city for the election of John Paul I and then his short pontificate led to the new conclave to elect John Paul II,” he said. “As fate would have it, I was back in service at the North American College as rector at the time of the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI.”

Unlike the upcoming conclave and election of a new pope, the priest pointed out that the last elections were held due to the death of the reigning pontiff that included nine days of mourning.

“Much of the city, certainly the Vatican City, was well occupied with the burials rites which won’t be happening in this case,” said Msgr. McCoy, who noted that the North American College had offered hospitality to the cardinals so it was a very busy and interesting time.

Given John Paul II’s long pontificate as well as the pontiff’s involvement and popularity in the changing world, he said there was a great deal of international outpouring and expression of condolences for the Holy Father.

“We will be missing all of that – so Rome today I imagine is more reacting in terms to the surprise and wondering what steps will take place.”

The climate in Rome today, Esquiliano noted, is still one of sadness because Romans see the pope as a father, “so they see this as losing a family member, but also hope because we all know that the Holy Spirit will give us another Vicar of Christ in just a few weeks.”

Esquiliano pointed out that he has had classes at the same time as the Wednesday audience and also had class on Ash Wednesday, when the pope celebrated his last public Mass so he was not able to attend. The seminarian, however, said he plans to attend the Holy Father’s last Angelus this Sunday. 

While he hasn’t been able to attend any special events since the announcement, some of the deacon’s friends have. He said, “They have told me that people have been making displays of support for the Holy Father, through banners, songs, applause and prayers. The numbers of attendees have also increased, to the point that they have decided to move the last audience to the Square.”

Prayer requests

“We need to pray in gratitude for the gift that Benedict XVI was to us,” Bishop Nickless said. “He has given us so much – his encyclicals and his teachings.”

He also said the faithful should pray that the Holy Spirit gives wisdom and courage to the cardinals who will elect a new pope to choose the right man.

Given that Feb. 22 is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the bishop said that is a day that the Holy Father could be remembered in a special way at all of the Masses in gratitude for his ministry. He added that the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has several resources available.

Cardinal DiNardo added, “We pray for him (the pope) and all the church as the cardinals now prepare to elect his successor in the weeks ahead. May the Holy Spirit guide us all in being in genuine communion with the Lord, with Peter and with all the members of the church.”

He explained that once the pope resigns, the papal see is vacant and that means that it is not business as usual. During this time, the cardinals as a group do the everyday work for the See of Rome and for the church universal as they prepare to conclave for the election of the successor of St. Peter.

Bishop Nickless would like for the new pope to be a younger man who has energy to do all of travel that is expected of him, someone who would continue to reach out to the youth, is fluent in several languages and has great pastoral skills.

“He also needs to be a good administrator,” noted the bishop, who would like to see the new leader take a look at the Roman Curia and review if updates should be made. “He also has to be very strong in dealing with the issues that are presented to the church today especially the continuing crisis of the clergy sexual misconduct.”

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