Catholics React With Shock, Sympathy and Muted Criticism

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BERLIN -- From his native Bavaria to the farthest corners of the earth he touched during his papacy, the Roman Catholic world greeted the news of Pope Benedict XVI's departure Monday with surprise, concern for his health and more than a little understanding that an 85-year-old man no longer had the strength to lead a global flock of one billion faithful.

The news that the pontiff would step down earned an immediate outpouring of tributes matched only by speculation about his health, about his future and that of a church in transition. Perhaps nowhere outside of the Vatican was it bigger news than Germany, where even non-Catholics took inordinate pride in their countryman's leading the Roman Catholic Church.

The Web site of the newspaper Bild, which famously declared "We Are Pope" nearly eight years ago when Benedict was elected, ran an enormous headline that read "Our German Pope Benedict Steps Down," followed by his entire statement in German on a slightly mottled brown background, as if it were old parchment.

Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled the pride that Germans felt to see one of their own elected by his fellow cardinals but also expressed understanding that he could not continue. "In our age of ever longer lives, many people will also be able to understand how the Pope must deal with the burdens of aging," Ms. Merkel said.

Relatives, friends, church colleagues and lay Catholics around the world were shocked by the suddenness of the decision to hand over the reins of the Vatican to a successor while he was still alive. "It came as a bolt out of the blue," said Tadeusz Goclowski, the archbishop emeritus of Gdansk in northern Poland, speaking on Polsat News television.

At first blush the criticism was muted for a pope with a controversial term, marred by child-abuse scandals and growing discord over conservative stances on issues like divorce and women in the clergy. Hans Küng, a leading critic of the pope, called his decision to step down "understandable for many reasons," according to the German news agency DPA, but added that so many conservative cardinals had been named during his tenure it would be difficult to find someone "who could lead the church out of its multifaceted crisis."

"No pope before him made more strides to improve the relationship with the Jews -- on so many levels," said Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress who met with Benedict on three occasions at the Vatican, in a statement on Monday. Though they did not agree on everything, Mr. Lauder said, "He always had an outstretched hand and an open ear for Jewish leaders."

The Most Rev. Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, released a statement calling Benedict "a witness to the universal scope of the gospel and a messenger of hope at a time when Christian faith is being called into question."

The strongest criticism came from the victims of clerical sexual abuse, who faulted him for failing to take stronger steps or, in some eyes, any steps at all.

"This pope had a great opportunity to finally address the decades of abuse in the church but at the end of the day he did nothing but promise everything and in the end he ultimately delivered nothing," John Kelly, of the Survivors of Child Abuse support group, told Agence France-Presse.

The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said in an interview with RTE, Ireland's national broadcaster, that the pope would be mainly remembered for his writings on theology. He said the pope had a very clear understanding of some of the moral problems confronting the church and he had addressed them "head on."

"I have a great personal affection for the pope, I have known him for many, many years, and I'm not surprised that he would take a decision of this kind if he felt that the burden he was under was too much," the archbishop said.

Speaking to a reporter from the German news agency DPA in Regensburg, his brother, Georg Ratzinger, said Benedict was having increasing difficulty walking, and that his doctor had advised against any more transatlantic journeys. "My brother wants more peace in old age," said Mr. Ratzinger, also a priest and for decades the head of the famous Regensburg choir the Domspatzen, who admitted he had known for months that his brother planned to step down.

A former student of the pope,the Rev. Vincent Twomey, now a top theologian based in the Catholic seminary in Maynooth, Ireland, said the pontiff did not look well last summer. "We all felt he looked gray and tired, and shriveled, to a certain extent. Then he came the following day and said Mass for us and then joined us for breakfast."

Antonio María Rouco Varela, the archbishop of Madrid and president of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, said that he and fellow members of the Spanish clergy felt "like orphans because of this decision, which fills us with us with sorrow because we felt secure and enlightened thanks to his delightful teaching and fatherly proximity."

In Poland, the information about Pope Benedict's resignation -- in Polish, "abdication" -- dominated the news entirely. Benedict, who was the closest adviser to the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, is seen as a friend to the country and, more than anything, an heir to the Polish pope.

Appreciation for Benedict's contributions was heard in the Philippines as well, where his years coincided with extreme election violence and a string of natural disasters. "We recall, in particular, with fond gratitude, the many prayers and comforting words Pope Benedict XVI has dedicated to Filipinos in times of calamity and challenge, and his words of encouragement and witness in the many Catholic events that have brought Catholics together," said Edwin Lacierda, a spokesman for the president.

"He's a thoughtful person and he will have given this decision a lot of consideration," said Rupert Hofbauer, a longtime neighbor of Benedict near the Bavarian city of Regensburg. "If he's not healthy and doesn't have the strength he needs anymore, then it was the right choice. He must know."

Reporting was contributed by Melissa Eddy and Victor Homola from Berlin; Hanna Kozlowska from Warsaw; Douglas Dalby from Dublin; Raphael Minder from Madrid; and Floyd Whaley from Manila.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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