The announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he would be the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years was an act of courage and good sense and probably followed months of deliberation, Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan said Monday.
The announcement came out of the blue, and stunned Roman Catholics in New Mexico and around the world, Sheehan said during a news conference at the Archdiocese’s office in Albuquerque.
“I think it also shows his great humility, that he wanted to do what is best for the church and to pass the responsibility for the successor of the Apostle Peter on to someone who was younger, with more energy,” Sheehan said.
Benedict, 85, will be the first pope to resign since 1450. “It takes some courage to do that,” Sheehan said.
The Rev. Rafael Garcia, pastor of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Albuquerque, said Benedict’s resignation may reflect today’s longer life expectancy and growing demands placed on a pontiff in an electronic age.
“Information moves very fast,” Garcia said. “The pace of work has just changed over the years.”
The church expects bishops to resign at age 75, he said.
“To me it has always made perfect sense that the pope — who has probably more pressure, more responsibilities — should also be able to step down.”
Catholics across New Mexico expressed surprise Monday at Benedict’s resignation. According to a 2010 survey, New Mexico has about 585,000 Catholics.
Among them was Ray Willison, a parishioner at Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis Assisi in Santa Fe, who also said he understood the decision.
“You could see in the last couple of months his health had deteriorated; he had become more frail,” Willison said during a visit to the basilica. “The demands of that office are great, so I can certainly understand why he chose to step down.”
Willison said he was sorry to see Benedict go.
“He did several good things to help define Catholicism,” he said.
Maria Parfitt of Albuquerque, who visited the basilica on Monday, said Benedict did the right thing by stepping down because of his health concerns. She said she hopes the change at the top of the church hierarchy will also bring a change to the church.
“A change would be a good thing,” she said. “The church hangs on to too many traditions. The church needs to be more progressive.”
Sheehan said he and nine other U.S. bishops met with Benedict in May.
“At that time, (Benedict) was fully aware of what was going on and fully engaged with us,” Sheehan recalled.
But Benedict “was beginning to feel more of his age” in subsequent months, he said. “These last few months, I think he was contemplating the possibility of resigning.”
Benedict may have timed his resignation in anticipation of the heavy demands placed on the pontiff during the Easter season, Sheehan said.
Benedict touched many New Mexicans and Native Americans last year when he canonized St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be declared a saint, said Sheehan, who led a pilgrimage to Rome to attend the ceremony.
Mario Montoya, 31, of Albuquerque, who was visiting near Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on Monday, said he was surprised by the announcement and spent much of the day thinking about the resignation.
“I don’t blame him for perhaps wanting a little more peace in his final years,” Montoya said.
The decision increased Montoya’s respect for Benedict, Montoya said, “if he is feeling that his age and his health are becoming too much of an issue.”
Journal staff writer T.J. Last contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal