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The leaders of Portage County's Catholic churches and other clergy reacted to the news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation with a mixture of surprise and acceptance Monday.
The pope cited health concerns in the Monday announcement of his resignation, effective Feb. 28. No pope has resigned for nearly 600 years.
The Rev. Thomas Acker, administrator of St. Joseph Parish in Randolph, said his first reaction to the announcement was to contrast it with the 2005 death of Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II.
"God leads us in different directions at different times. With one, He showed us how to go through death graciously -- with this, how to make a transition graciously," Acker said. "The Holy Spirit comes down and gives us different lessons for different time and different people,"
Acker, who has a doctorate in biology from Stanford University, said Benedict is a "brilliant scholar" whose embrace of scientific language and ideas helped continue to move the church into the 21st century.
"The scientific community is an educated community and they could relate with (Benedict) very easy," Acker said.
Acker said he broke the news to many parishioners at Monday morning Mass, while parishioners broke the news to the leader of the county's other St. Joseph parish.
"My first reaction is surprise. I certainly didn't see that coming," said Rev. Michael Garvey, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Mantua.
Parishioners showed up at Mass Monday morning and "the first question out of their mouths was 'Have you heard the news?' and I hadn't at that time," he said. "They were all quite interested in 'What do you know, what do you think?'"
Garvey said he admires Benedict, and called his resignation "a courageous move, unprecedented in 600 years" since Pope Gregory XII abdicated in 1415 at age 69.
He said his thoughts are with the pope, who is 85 years old, and would "ask for prayers for Holy Father, and guidance for the church in selecting a new leader."
Garvey said a Catholic radio station was reporting Monday morning that a papal conclave, the selection process for a new pope, is expected to take place no later than mid-March with the next pope's election to take place before Easter.
As for the selection of the next pope, "it's kind of hard to read the tea leaves," Garvey said. He said he would like to see a younger man in his late 50s or early 60s take up the mantle, possibly "someone who would have a world view as opposed to a strictly Italian or European world view."
"But I guess I'll have to leave that in the Holy Spirit's hands," he said.
The Rev. John Madden, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Ravenna, said the news came as a total surprise, but imagines the workload is overwhelming for a man who is 85. He said Benedict hinted of potential retirement when he was appointed seven years ago.
"I feel he has every right to retire," he said. "He must feel at this point it's time to bow out and get off the stage."
He pointed out that the pope's workload as the "vicar of Christ on Earth" is greater than some might imagine.
The pope, he said, says Mass daily in his private chapel, and as a head of state, greets diplomats from around the world. He travels all over the world and makes speeches, sometimes every week.
"Also, he's the only one of his kind," he said. "There's only one pope."
He predicted that the next pope might be Italian, since the last two pontiffs were non-Italians.
Bishop George Murry of the Diocese of Youngstown, which includes Portage County, said he was saddened to hear of the pontiff's resignation, saying that given his age, it is "understandable but nonetheless a great loss for the Church."
"Pope Benedict's love of the United States was evident when he visited Washington and New York in 2008," he said. "At that time, not only did he meet with President Bush and the American bishops and hundreds of thousands of people, but also spent time offering solace to a group of victims of sexual abuse by clerics."
The Rev. David Pattee of the United Church of Christ in Kent weighed in on the pope's resignation, as did visiting theologian Susan Thistlethwaite, who will be speaking at the Kent church tonight.
Pattee applauded some of Benedict's outreach to the Muslim community, and hoped that some of the "forward thinking initiatives" will be carried on by the next pope.
Thistlethwaite said she believes Benedict saw the decline in the Catholic church when John Paul II stayed in office until his death, and didn't want the church to suffer the same way under his watch.
"It sets a very good precedent for the papacy," she said. "600 years is too long to wait for the second resignation."
When asked about their thoughts on the next pope, Thistlethwaite joked, "Stephen Colbert has been nominated."
Bishop Richard Lennon of the Diocese of Cleveland released a statement noting the Pope's resignation was similar to a family living with an aging parent, calling the decision, "an action motivated by his love of the Church."
"I encourage the Faithful to pray for Pope Benedict XVI, asking God to bless him with his gifts of peace and joy, also, I invite all the Faithful to join with me to pray to the Holy Spirit asking him to give us a successor who will continue leading our Church and reflecting the image of Jesus Christ," Lennon said.
Record-Courier Staff Writers Thomas Gallick, Dave O'Brien and Diane Smith contributed to this report.