The sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI shocked Vancouver Island Roman Catholics Monday, including the region’s top bishop.
“I think like everybody else it was a great surprise. A very unusual event,” said Richard Gagnon, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria.
Benedict became the first pontiff in six centuries to renounce the papacy. The 85-year-old pope declared that his declining health and advanced age means he no longer has the necessary physical strength to lead the world’s more than one billion Catholics.
“All we have, like everyone else, is news about his concern of health and stamina and worries about being able to continue in that office,” said Gagnon, whose diocese represents all of Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands.
The Vatican stressed on Monday that no specific medical condition prompted Benedict’s decision to become the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.
That Benedict is tired would be a perfectly normal diagnosis for an 85-year-old pope, even someone with no known serious health problems and a still-agile mind.
He has acknowledged having suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in 1991 that temporarily affected his vision, but he later made a full recovery. In 2009, the pope fell and suffered minor injuries when he broke one of his wrists while vacationing in the Alps.
A pope takes the position with the understanding they normally remain in place until they die, said Gagnon.
“I think that the importance of this is beginning to dawn on people,” he said.
“When you look at it through the lens of history, it is a very significant event for the Catholic Church and by extension for the world.”
Outside St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Victoria, parishioners appeared equally shocked by the news.
“It was surprising for us, yeah,” said Eddie Manero, a Toronto resident visiting Victoria who arrived for the regularly-scheduled noon mass only to discovered it cancelled because of the Family Day holiday.
“I just hope there is no undercurrent reason for it.” Benedict is a “smart pope,” who helped implement a number of changes in the church, he said. Manero said having a new pope won’t affect his religious beliefs or attendance at daily mass.
“While you’re a Catholic and you love the pope, there is somebody above the pope that you are there to pledge your allegiance and not just the pope,” said Manero.
It’s likely the Island’s many parishes will hold masses for Pope Benedict in coming days and weeks, to help discuss the issue with the Island’s more than 90,000 Catholics, said Gagnon.
“I think it's sort of like observing a momentous event and you don't quite fully understand it all,” he said. “I don’t think it shakes the faith of people but it makes them reflect on the event itself and the reasons for it.
“I think this is a time now for prayer and invoking the Holy Spirit’s assistance in this time of the church.”
Benedict said he will remain pope until Feb. 28.
His resignation sets in motion a complex sequence of events to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
The laws governing the selection after a pope’s resignation are the same as those in force after a papal death, aside from skipping a period of mourning.
The Vatican summons a conclave of cardinals, 118 of which are eligible to vote for the next pope. Only cardinals have been selected as pope since 1378. A two-third majority vote is required. Ballots are burned after each round — black smoke signals no decision; white smoke signals that cardinals have chosen a pope and he has accepted.
With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press
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