TORONTO - Surprise, a lack of understanding and even some disappointment — those were among the initial emotions expressed by a number of Canadians on Monday after Pope Benedict XVI announced he would be resigning at the end of the month.
Canadians holding high office in the Catholic church acknowledged the Pope's move was unconventional and a shock for the church, but said it was something Benedict did for the good of the church.
"This is not a cause for anxiety or worry because the church has been, is now, and always will be in the hands of God, and guided by God," said Archbishop Richard Smith, who is also president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"This particular decision, as surprising and unprecedented as it is in modern times, is thoroughly consistent with the witness that (Benedict) has given us through many, many years. It is something that he has taken with serious thought, solely for the good of the church."
Benedict becomes the first pontiff to step down in 600 years. The 85-year-old declared he would resign Feb. 28, citing a lack of strength to do the job.
The news drew exclamations from parishioners, some of whom headed to mid-day mass specifically to seek further information on the Pope's startling announcement.
"I'm so sad," said Ana Amos, 48, as she headed into St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto. "I cried when Pope John Paul died, and next I was happy that another pope came, but now he is resigning, I don't know why?"
Other Canadians mourned Benedict's impending departure.
"We have never had such a brilliant man in the papacy. It's going to be quite a loss," said Helene Hoffman before she sat down for mass. "He's a great Pope, it's just strange that he's leaving."
There were those, however, who thought Benedict's move was the right one.
"We need somebody younger to be able to carry out the duties of the pope," said Maria Ebhabha. "I think he did a good thing, because he's old."
A conclave of cardinals will select Benedict's successor in Rome in the coming weeks. Among those being mentioned as a strong contender is Quebec native, Marc Cardinal Ouellet, who currently heads the Congregation for Bishops, which vets bishops nominations worldwide.
The Archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Cardinal Collins, who will be among those choosing the next pope, offered few thoughts on Ouellet's chances, saying it was too early to speculate on Benedict's successor.
For Collins, Benedict's resignation heralds a time of deep reflection on the qualities desired in the next pope, and signals a period during which the current pontiff's contributions to the faith ought to be celebrated.
"I think the whole church gathers together at such a time in prayer for the college of cardinals and this most profound mission we have," he said. "I think it is a time for us to give thanks to God for the tremendous leadership of Pope Benedict who speaks with clarity and charity.
In Collins's estimation, Monday's news was no cause for faith in the church to be shaken.
"Normally popes have gone till death and this is a change in that," he admitted. "Not having Pope Benedict as Pope is obviously a great shock for the church and a loss for the church ... but each person has to read the time and their own person, and what is best and that's entrusted to the pope to read that."
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, a dispute among competing papal claimants.
Whether Benedict's resignation will pave a path for more modern-day resignations, however, remains to be seen, said Queen’s University teaching fellow Robert Dennis, who specializes in the history of the modern Vatican.
"There really is no modern equivalent for it," said Dennis, who is also vice president of the Canadian Catholic Historical Association.
"I don't know if we can say this will be the norm going forward. I think it will very much be a matter of the conscience of the individual person."
Regardless of how the move impacts the highest offices of the church, for those in the pews, Dennis said Benedict's resignation will take some time to be digested, but ought to eventually be accepted as one which wasn't made lightly.
"Nobody has a memory of this happening, obviously. So it will probably affect people in different ways," he said. "That a pope can move on from the office is probably something not everyone will feel comfortable with, and at the same time there's recognition that the office has demands and there's a very human element...that there is perhaps the need for someone that has a more youthful vitality."
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