By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippi Catholics expressed surprise but understanding Monday at the news of the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who cited his frail health in becoming the first pope to step down in nearly 600 years.
“The papacy is a very demanding role and position in our church. It takes great wisdom to reach a decision such as this and we admire him for acting prudently on behalf of our church and his own sake,” Bishop Joseph N. Latino of the Diocese of Jackson, which includes Northeast Mississippi, said in a statement.
Latino said that during nearly eight years as pope, the 85-year-old Benedict “has worked for greater understanding among faith traditions, and spoke out on behalf of truth and justice tempered with mercy. He continued to engage us in a dialogue on these truths and the dangers of moral relativism.
“We offer him our fervent prayers for fruitful retirement years and we thank him for his life of service to our church and indeed the world.”
Latino and Bishop Roger Morin of the Diocese of Biloxi offered prayers to the College of Cardinals who will convene in March to elect a successor to Pope Benedict.
University of Mississippi Law Professor Ronald Rychlak said Benedict’s decision came not from weakness, but from a desire for the good of the church.
“When Benedict’s doctor advised against going on any more trips, he saw the church needed someone more vibrant who can handle the mental and physical challenges of the papacy,” he said.
Rychlak has served as an adviser to the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations for 12 years. The Holy See is the diplomatic arm of the Vatican, complete with embassies and presence at international summits.
“Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was under 60 when elected pope in 1978, so his papacy was very long by comparison, lasting until 2005,” Rychlak said. “When a pope as old as Benedict is elected, it comes with the expectation of a relatively short papacy, which allows for a smooth transition.”
Benedict said in his announcement he planned to vacate the papacy on Feb. 28, but a timeline for selecting a predecessor remains unclear. Though it is not unusual for a pope to groom an individual or group of possible candidates to take his place, Rychlak said it is dangerous to make predictions along political lines.
“A pope is not going to be elected based on which country they are from, what color their skin is, or how old they are,” he said. “The cardinals will base their decision through careful prayer to select which man best emulates Christ with wisdom, knowledge and devotion.”
However, Rychlak noted Benedict’s successor will most likely be the first pope whose ministry does not predate the Vatican II international conference of the 1960s, which sought to put the church in context with the modern world.
Christi Houin, a member of St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, got to see Benedict in person last October, after winning a trip to Rome through a contest on a Catholic radio station. When the trip toured the Vatican, Houin said the pope passed within arm’s reach of her.
“It may sound bad, but one of my first thoughts was how frail he seemed. If you didn’t see him in person, you might not expect that,” she said.
Despite the turbulent times for the church during his papacy, Houin said Benedict himself should be remembered for his intelligence and his writing.
“He made an impression on me as a very intelligent man and also a very gentle man,” Houin said. “It was amazing to hear him speak to the audience in so many different languages, and the writing he has done has been amazing.”
Benedict’s works point to moral relativism as the cause of much of the world’s strife, according to Mary Woodward, director of communications for the Jackson Diocese. She said Benedict’s heart for the world’s needy would be missed.
“He has so much respect for the dignity of humanity, and has shown such a commitment to dialogue among different faith traditions to bring awareness to the margins of the world,” she said.
Father Lincoln Dall, priest at St. James in Tupelo, said he hoped for the next pope to pursue that same mission.
“Benedict facilitated the church becoming more global, making the church aware of different cultures living out their faith,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.