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.
“Perhaps we need a pope who can look beyond Europe and bring to the entire church a certain vitality that is seen on other continents.”
It may be time for a “youngish” pope, possibly from the developing world, said Andreas Dingstad, a spokesman for the Catholic diocese in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.
“The church is growing most in the south. So I think lots of people will be ready for a pope from Africa, Asia or South America. But who knows, it’s the early days still,” Dingstad said.
Some 176 million people in Africa are Catholic, roughly a third of all Christians across the continent, according to a December 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in Europe, the traditional stronghold of the church, has dropped in recent years.
The African nation with the biggest Christian population, Nigeria, has some 20 million practicing Catholics. In Lagos, its largest city, trader Chukwuma Awaegwu put his feelings simply Monday: “If I had my way an African should be the next pope, or someone from Nigeria.”
“It’s true; they brought the religion to us, but we have come of age,” he said. “In America, now we have a black president. So let’s just feel the impact of a black pope.”
Latin American Catholics also expressed hope for a leader from their midst.
“It would be good for the church now to give the opportunity to a Latin American pope,” said office worker Veronica Torres as she left Mass at Inaquito Church in the Ecuadorean capital of Quito. She said that would give “new force to the papacy.”
In the end, however, “It doesn’t matter who it is: be it a Latino, European or Asian,” said Ferya Caicedo, a housewife from Pradera, Colombia. “This world is crazy, with lots of violence, lots of corruption. We are killing one another for crumbs and we need God’s messenger, whoever it may be, to get us out of this situation because we are lost.”
Many Catholics, however, praised Benedict for bravery and modesty in deciding to step aside.
The resignation was an act of deference to the greater good by a man “demonstrating his humanity,” said Father Luis Rivero, Archdiocesan director of campus ministry for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami.
“There are times that only we know that we have to let go. And sometimes people may see that as a failure, but it’s honorable when someone reaches their point they have to let go because they can’t do this effectively anymore.”