RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Roman Catholics around the world expressed disbelief and grief Monday at the first papal resignation in six centuries. Some saw it as a dramatic act of humility, others as a sign of crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. Many more expressed hope that a more dynamic and charismatic new pope – ideally one from the developing world – could energize the church and lead it into a new era.
Still, shock was the overwhelming first response to Pope Benedict XVI‘s announcement Monday that he would retire Feb. 28.
“He can’t quit like that. This can’t be,” said Alis Ramirez, an ice cream seller headed to church in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. “A vacuum is created. It’s like when a loved one dies.”
“Nobody was expecting it. It was quite a shock,” said Cardinal Thomas Colins of Toronto, Canada. “I was like, ‘The pope has resigned?'”
The news also brought reawakened calls for a more energetic successor, perhaps one from the global South, long considered a bulwark against continued losses in church membership in Europe and the United States. While the church has been battered by growing secularism and sex abuse scandals in the northern hemisphere, the number of believers is growing in Africa, and half the world’s Catholics live in Latin America.
“We need someone young who can bring back the dynamism to the church,” said Zulma Alves, a cook who was lighting candles in front of a Rio de Janeiro church that was closed for Carnival.
In Cuba, site of one of Pope Benedict’s final trips, the few parishioners outside Havana’s Cathedral before doors opened early Monday said they understood his reasons for stepping down and hoped it he would be replaced by a younger pontiff.
“The church must bring itself up to date with the modern world,” said Angel Aguilera, a 33-year-old municipal worker, whose comments were echoed by some in other countries.
“We’re kind of excited at the (prospect) of a pope that our Catholics seem to be screaming for,” said Elaine Herald, manager at St. Theresa of the Infant Jesus Parish in New Cumberland, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She said there was speculation about a progressive pope, perhaps a black person.
Others praised Benedict precisely for his defense of traditional values.
“He has always been a defender of the faith against women in the clergy, against Planned Parenthood, against abortion. He’s been a defender of the faith against heresies in the church,” said Eric Husseini, a member of the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, after attending morning Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Hagerstown, Md.
Antonio Marto, the bishop of Fatima in central Portugal, said Benedict XVI’s resignation presents an opportunity to pick a church leader from a developing country.
“Europe today is going through a period of cultural tiredness, exhaustion, which is reflected in the way Christianity is lived,” Marto told reporters. “You don’t see that in Africa or Latin America where there is a freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith.