Middle Georgians stunned by news of pope’s abdication

pramati@macon.comFebruary 11, 2013 

Father Daniel Melaba of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Macon thought it was a joke when he heard Monday that Pope Benedict XVI planned to step down at the end of the month.

“I was startled,” said Melaba, St. Peter Claver’s parochial administrator. “I was offering a little prayer when I saw a text that said the pope has resigned. I thought, ‘It’s not April Fool’s yet.’ Then I turned on the TV, and there it was.”

Pope Benedict will become the first pontiff in nearly six centuries to step down from the position.

Father David Kwiatkowski, parochial vicar at St. Joseph Catholic Church, had a similar reaction.

“At first, I was completely shocked,” he said. “I checked the news to look for answers why. But then I started to think about it. Pope Benedict is such a great person, one of the great minds, who spent so much time in prayer. I have a lot of respect for him. ... He felt it was time to resign to leave it to someone else. He’s leaving it to God’s plan for the future of the church.”

Benedict, 85, who became pope in 2005 after the death of John Paul II, becomes the first pontiff to resign since Gregory XII, who left office in 1415.

Melaba said he thinks Benedict, who long served John Paul II, saw his predecessor’s failing health in office before his death and didn’t want to go through the same experience. As part of its announcement, the Vatican said Monday there was no specific medical condition that is forcing Benedict to step down.

“You wonder what was going through his mind,” Melaba said. “Given the demands of his office, I can understand why he would.”

Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer of the Diocese of Savannah -- which oversees many of the Catholic churches in the state, including in Middle Georgia -- praised Benedict’s courage in giving up his office after no longer being able to serve at full strength. Hartmayer noted in a news conference Monday that Benedict’s health issues related to his body, not his mind.

“He was able to speak to us in six languages,” Hartmayer said in a news release. The release said Benedict has written more than 100 books and is a theologian and an academic.

Macon’s Ruth Sykes, a convert to Catholicism, said she was checking social media after she heard the news about Benedict. She said she hopes people accept his announcement and the reasons he gave for stepping down.

“I hope they accept it at face value and not try to make some scandal out of this,” she said. “Of course it was a surprise, but after reading his comments, I feel OK. I think he’s wise to acknowledge his human frailty and do what is best for the church.”

Jerome Bondal, a Catholic from Gray, said given Benedict’s poor health, the decision wasn’t too much of a shock.

“Anybody is entitled to that decision, including the pope,” he said. “He’s the pope. I always respect his decisions.”

Local speculation on next pope

Benedict has been known for his traditional values and conservative outlook, and he has appointed many cardinals who share his perspective. There is speculation the next pope could come from Latin America or Africa, given those regions’ high concentrations of Catholics.

Melaba, a native of Nigeria, said the Catholic Church isn’t like a political entity such as the United Nations, in which the secretary-general might be chosen from a specific region, although he acknowledges that there are always politics involved in any group.

“What the church will need is a man of God,” he said, “someone who understands the dynamics of modern society and the modern world, and who will bring us forth into the age that we now live.”

Kwiatkowski said it’s important to have someone leading the church who respects its traditions.

“(Benedict) sees problems in a way that other people don’t see -- as a philosopher, a theologian,” he said.

“He goes back to the traditions deemed most fitting for the 21st century. The church must be a sign of stability. We have to be an anchor, a point of reference.”

Kwiatkowski said that much like Benedict carrying on some of the initiatives of John Paul II, he expects the next pope to hold a similar philosophy as Benedict.

“The speculation always proceeds,” he said. “But we have such a strong College of Cardinals, I’m sure (the next pope) will be a good one.”

Melaba said he spoke with several parishioners who are concerned about changes that might happen with a new pope.

“A lot of them were bothered and surprised,” he said. “I told them that our God is a God of surprises. This is the way he often speaks to us.”

Sykes said she trusts in the church’s leadership and expects a reasonably smooth transition of power.

“I think we’ll be fine,” she said. “The church has stood for 2,000 years. I think God will help select the next pope to be a shepherd for the 21st century.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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