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Resignation of pope provokes shock

Feb. 12, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

"Shocked, stunned," were the most frequent reactions heard and seen to Pope Benedict XVI's bombshell announcement Monday that he would resign from the papacy as of Feb. 28, and allow a new pope to be elected by the conclave of cardinals in time for Holy Week and Easter services.

New York archdiocese Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was "startled and anxious."

Canon Law does allow for popes to resign their office, but it hasn't happened since Pope Gregory XII stepped down in 1415, almost 600 years ago. Perhaps the most famous resignation was that of Pope Celestine V in 1294. Dante blasted Celestine for cowardice and in his epic poem "The Divine Comedy" put him in hell, along with his successor, Boniface VIII, Dante's personal nemesis.

Michael Warsaw, president and CEO of EWTN television, a worldwide Catholic network, said Benedict's decision to turn in his papal tiara and retire to a monastery "raised more questions than we have answers for."

The world's one billion Catholics, at least those who are faithful in attendance at Mass and take their church seriously, were left wondering, "Did Benedict step down of his own accord -- or was he pushed out? What comes next? Will a new pope hew to Benedict's policies or change the direction of the church, perhaps radically?"

Leaders of other Christian denominations were no doubt musing over whether a new pope might further ecumenical dialog and advance the cause of Christian unity -- or go hardline and impede it.

Pope Benedict, in his announcement, cited his age -- he's soon to turn 86 -- and increasing physical frailty and his concerns that he lacked the stamina to carry out all his duties, including foreign travel.

While there appeared to be no reason to doubt his sincerity, CNN reported that the current pope had been "unable to clear up" challenges to Vatican finances. And over the years religion editors and Vatican observers have noted that questions remain about Benedict's ability to cope satisfactorily with the pedophile abuse scandals in the United States, Ireland and his native Germany, among other regions.

The Vatican curia, the body of cardinals, bishops and others who manage a variety of Vatican secretariats (similar to a U.S. President's cabinet), conceivably may have lent some encouragement to Benedict's decision, hopeful of finding someone more capable of addressing finances and the pedophile priest problem.

As to the forthcoming conclave and election of a new pope, there seemed in the immediate moment to be no clear "frontrunner" among cardinals who become labeled in Italian "papabili," those most likely to be chosen.

The last two popes -- John Paul II of Polish birth and Benedict XVI of German birth -- have broken a long line of Italians being entrusted with "the keys of St. Peter." Thus one question clearly will be: Can the Italians "recapture" the papacy? Or will the "internationalizing" of the papal office continue, possibly with the election of a cardinal from Africa, Asia or Latin America?

New York's Cardinal Dolan is himself considered a longshot candidate. Observers at the Vatican have noted, however, that among the body of cardinals there is skepticism that naming someone to the papacy from a world superpower such as the United States would be a desirable outcome.

John Patrick Grace covered the Vatican from The Associated Press Rome bureau in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the papacy of Pope Paul VI, who also considered resigning but ended up staying in office until death.