When the Rev. Michael Hogan asked for intercessions during Monday’s noontime service at St. Joseph’s Church, Frank Citone spoke first.
Citone asked people to pray for Pope Benedict XVI, who earlier Monday informed Vatican cardinals of his decision to resign the papacy.
“It was definitely a surprise for all of us,” said Citone, 48, of Glenville, after the Mass inside the downtown Schenectady church had concluded. “He was very humble, very conservative and very traditional.”
Local Roman Catholics — clergy and parishioners alike — said they were stunned to hear about the 85-year-old pope’s retirement. Some said they understood, and admired the pontiff’s courage.
Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, was among the surprised.
“But as I thought more about it,” Hubbard said in a statement, “I remembered that Pope Benedict had said before that if, in conscience, he ever reached the point where his health would compromise his responsibilities, he would step down. His resignation is the latest in his acts of selfless service on behalf of the church.”
Patricia Lando, who lives in Schenectady’s Stockade, learned about the pope’s announcement at St. Joseph’s.
“I’ve had cancer twice, I know what it’s like to have health problems,” said Lando, 65. “If he feels he cannot do justice to the position — he’s probably prayed a lot about it — it’s probably the right thing to do. You have to go with your conscience and your relationship with God first. No matter what anybody is going to say, you have to be right with God in your own heart.”
Paul Heckman, another person at the church service, called Benedict a humble man who is not beyond human frailty.
“The church is made up of a lot of frail human beings, including the pope,” said Heckman, 62, who lives in Glenville. “There will be another pope. The church will go on.”
The Rev. Jerry Gingras, pastor of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville, praised Benedict for his devotion to office.
“I give the Holy Father so much credit because he recognized the immensity and the importance of this job,” Gingras said. “Like he said in his retirement letter, it requires him to be healthy enough to attend to so many issues and to be present to so many countries. He really physically can’t do that any longer. To admit this to himself and to act on that, I think, is very courageous.”
Hogan, who also leads St. Margaret of Cortona parish in Rotterdam Junction, called Benedict a “brilliant, brilliant, brilliant” man. But he was critical of the pope’s leadership.
“I think he started out very well,” Hogan said. “We were all very surprised at how caring and compassionate … he was not confronting issues, he was working with people. And then at some point he began to turn. Stricter and more confrontational, forbidding certain theologians to teach in Catholic colleges and universities. It kind of raised everybody’s eyebrow — what’s going on here?”
Hogan expects Benedict’s decision will be remembered by future popes as they grow older.
“I think it does set a precedent that the next couple of popes, if they become ancient, may take that as a precedent to retire,” he said.
Benedict’s decision to retire has sparked discussion about precedents in papal resignations.
“The last time it happened at all was 1415, and that was for a political decision within the church,” said Jeffrey Marlett, professor of religious studies at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, mentioning the times of Pope Gregory XII. “The last time a pope resigned for health concerns was 1294, Celestine V.”
Marlett believes Benedict was thinking about the upcoming Lenten season, which begins this week with Ash Wednesday.
“A decision like this indicates that obviously, Benedict wanted to stop being pope before his health got in the way of his being able to uphold the office as he thought it should be,” Marlett said. “The pope is saying basically that his decision to step down as pope is not as important as the Easter season that is coming up and then Easter,” he added. “So we’re going to start Lent with one pope and end it with another. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Another situation that has rarely happened will happen with Benedict. Marlett said if the retired pope remains healthy, he will be able to advise and guide his successor.
The Rev. Richard Carlino, pastor of St. Anthony’s Church in Schenectady, believes humility was part of Benedict’s decision.
“Humility, courage and conviction, those three words come to my mind,” he said. “You can’t help but admire the man. He didn’t cling to the office and the glory of the pope. He thought of the betterment of the church.”