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February 11. 2013 9:53PM

Pope's resignation stuns NH Catholics


Pope Benedict XVI attends a consistory at the Vatican February 11, 2013, in this picture provided by Osservatore Romano. Pope Benedict said on Monday he will resign on Feb 28 because he no longer has the strength to fulfil the duties of his office, becoming the first pontiff since the Middle Ages to take such a step. (REUTERS/Osservatore Romano)

Rain, snow and sleet were expected in New Hampshire Monday. Another heavenly storm wasn't: the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at the end of this month.
Benedict becomes the first Pope in seven centuries to abdicate the throne of Saint Peter. Benedict did so, he said, after recognizing his deteriorating strength and "incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

New Hampshire Catholics said they were surprised, including five students from Magdalen College in Warner who arrived in Rome Saturday to begin several weeks of study.

On Sunday, they were at St. Peter's Square to hear the 85-year-old Benedict say his weekly Angelus prayer. Twenty-four hours later, the announcement came.

"It's kind of crazy to think you come here and all of a sudden, it's a huge news story," said Baron Torres, a sophomore at the college. The students are lodging at a convent outside Rome, and Torres said he kept doubting what the receptionist told him Monday morning.

"You would think the Pope is supposed to stay on his seat until the day he dies," Torres said.

Others disagreed.

"There is a time to step down, even in the Catholic church," said William Fahey, president of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack. "In his resignation, he is teaching us one more thing."

He dismissed any suggestion that there is more to the story.

Michele Dillon, a scholar of Catholicism and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, said the resignation makes sense, given the mental and physical energy necessary to fulfill the job. The Pope had slowed down recently and started using a cane and a wheeled platform to take him up the long aisle in St. Peter's, Reuters reported.

In a statement, New Hampshire Bishop Peter Libasci asked for prayers for the Pope and said Benedict always emphasized the Church's deep traditions and 2,000 years of history.

Became Pope in 2005

Benedict was elevated to Pope in 2005, after spending years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There, he earned the nickname "God's Rottweiler" for his insistence on strict adherence to Catholic teaching.

As Pope, Benedict angered Muslims when he compared Islam with violence. Jews didn't like it when he rehabilitated a Holocaust denier. And the priest sex-abuse scandal continued throughout his papacy, especially in European countries.

Last year, Benedict's private butler leaked papers alleging corruption in Vatican business deals.

As Pope, Benedict adhered to established doctrine on topics such as homosexuality, priestly celibacy and women's ordination, Dillon said. And he bemoaned the rise of secularism in Europe and the Western world.

But he endorsed modernizing Vatican II and spoked against economic inequality. And there were no purges of liberals during Benedict's eight years.

"His kindness to liberals is one in not doing the things people thought he would do," said the Rev. Jerome Day OSB, a Benedictine at St. Anslem College who is also pastor at St. Raphael Church in Manchester.

St. Anselm connection

The announcement made for a sad day at the abbey at St. Anselm College, Day said.

When elected, the German-born Pope took the name of the founder of the Benedictine order, Day said. The Benedictines who came to New Hampshire to minister to Germans, he said, trace their spiritual home to Pope Benedict's native Bavaria.

"Across the board, there is gratitude among the monks at St. Anselm for the many good things he has done for us," Day said.

He said it will be interesting to see how the role of Pope-emeritus develops, and he said the former Pope would always be welcome to lecture at St. Anselm College.

The last Pope to resign willingly was Celestine V in 1294 after reigning for only five months. His resignation was known as "the great refusal" and was condemned by the poet Dante in the "Divine Comedy."

Gregory XII reluctantly abdicated in 1415 to end a dispute with a rival claimant to the papacy.

As soon as Palm Sunday?

In Rome, chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi indicated that the complex machinery of naming a new Pope will move quickly, not having to wait for elaborate funeral services.

He said Benedict would not try to influence the decision of the College of Cardinals, which will select a new Pope. A new leader could be elected as soon as Palm Sunday, on March 24, and be ready to take over by Easter a week later, Lombardi said.

The Magdalen College students are scheduled to depart Rome on March 8, but Torres said he would like to stay longer.

Torres said it would be intriguing to witness the election of a new Pope. But he said he would give it up for the security of keeping Benedict in place.

"I'm honestly scared for the church," he said.

Dillon said a new Pope will bring a fresh perspective to problems such as the priest shortage, the role of women in the church and the lack of faith among youth.

"Whoever responds to them, the hope is they do it in a creative way," the UNH professor said. "The church is all the time tweaking its doctrine."

Reuters News Service and Union Leader Correspondent Kimberly Houghton contributed to this article.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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