The world awoke this morning to the news from Rome that Pope Benedict XVI, spiritual leader to more the more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide, will resign on Feb. 28. The Pope cited his advancing years and declining health as the primary reasons for his stepping down.
The news came as a shock to many, as the last time a pope resigned from the office was almost 600 years ago. ( Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415 reportedly to put an end to fighting within the vatican between different factions who laid claim to the office.)
Locally, Catholics have expressed surprise and confusion over the announcement and the direction the Roman Catholic Church may take from here.
"It's kind of startling and shocking," said Rev. Gus Puleo, pastor of Saint Patrick's Church in Norristown. "[Though] he did write something early in his pontificate saying that he might resign. So it shouldn't be so shocking, but it's been 600 years since it happened."
Despite the suddenness of the news, Rev. Puleo feels that parishioners shouldn't be overly alarmed at situation.
"I don't think the average person should be worried or upset," said Rev. Puleo. "The church still continues on."
On a personal level, Rev. Puleo noted that he had always found Pope Benedict XVI's leadership surprising.
"To me, his pontificate was surprising all the way around," said Rev. Puleo. "First of all, he was a much older man than usually a pope is. People had this idea of him being very rigid and firm, but he was very pastoral at the same time. He was a very surprising pope."
Pius Yollong, a parishioner at St. Patrick's who also works for the church, expressed concern that Pope Benedict XVI would step down even in the face of illness. Yollong suggested that more than health concerns were involved in the decision.
"My problem is that John Paul II was weaker than he is and he went all the way to the end," noted Yollong. "So I don't understand why he's really resigning. Maybe all the problems [the church] has been going through have gotten to him also. I think it's not only the fact that he's sick. I think that with all the pressure on the church today, I don't think he was able to handle that. To handle that you need to be 100 percent."
Yollong also noted that the stresses on the church leadership did not always come from outside the Vatican.
"Today, also, we realize that the attacks are not always coming from outside the church," said Yollong. "It's within the church itself. [Pope Benedict XVI] has to deal with the people around him who are going against his teaching, against the teaching of the church, against what he's trying to portray because he's been a conservative pope. The church is getting more liberal, so he has to fight even with in his [inner circle]. I think it wasn't easy for him."
At Mother of Divine Providence Church (MDP) in King of Prussia, Fr. Martin Cioppi, pastor of MDP, expressed similar surprise at the announcement, but also hope for exhilaration for the next step for Catholics everywhere.
"The first thing that came to mind as I was watching the BBC news this morning was the Holy Spirit never ceases to astonish me," said Fr. Cioppi. "But I trust the pope's judgement. He obviously brought it to prayer and has always been open to the workings of the Holy Spirit in his life and in the life of the church."
Fr. Cioppi said he's now excited at what may come next for the church, but he'll miss the man he's come to respect as a teacher and leader.
"I anxiously pray for the cardinals as they gather together to elect a successor," said Fr. Cioppi. "I will miss Benedict because he's a very good teacher and excellent writer, but God's will be done.
As for his parishioners, Father Martin was optimistic that they would weather the unexpected news by relying on their faith.
"As Catholics, we have a close, spiritual tie with the pope," noted Fr. Cioppi. "That's why we call him our Holy Father. [His resignation] does affect us, but we also have the belief that the Holy Spirit is guiding the church and will be with us through this whole process... I think we'll be fine."
"I think it'll be exciting to see this whole transition happen," said Fr. Cioppi. "It's an exciting time for us to witness the hand of God so forcefully in our life."
While the news will undoubtedly continue to spark surprise and some debate, Rev. Puleo made a point of noting that the resignation was handled in a very thoughtful manner.
"He did give two weeks notice," joked Rev. Puleo.
Read more local reaction from area clergy and Catholics at Plymouth-Whitemarsh Patch. What do you think of the news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation?