Pope Benedict XVI's unexpected resignation reverberated Monday from the Vatican to St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Chicago, where some parishioners trickling out of a morning Mass were at a loss for words.
"I was shocked," said Errol Kunz, 65, a retiree who lives near the church in the Lakeview neighborhood. "I couldn't believe it."
While some reform-minded advocates hailed Benedict, 85, who announced he would step down Feb. 28 as head of the Roman Catholic Church, as a devoted theologian, they welcomed his departure as an opening for fresh leadership in a church that has grappled with bureaucratic squabbles and the lingering damage of a far-reaching sexual abuse scandal.
"The leadership of our church needs to be in touch with the signs of our times," said Janet Hauter, chair of the progressive American Catholic Council. "We're at a crossroads of some sort."
Catholic leaders in the Chicago area praised Benedict for acknowledging he no longer could keep pace with the demands of the papacy.
"He has taught with clarity and charity what God has revealed to the world in Christ, he has handed on the apostolic faith, he has loved all of God's people with all his heart," Chicago Cardinal Francis George said in a statement. "He has now shown great courage in deciding, after prayer and soul-searching, to resign his office at the end of this month."
The Vatican expects to elect Benedict's replacement by Easter.
Hauter's ideal candidate? "An open-minded individual who believes in collaboration and collegiality."
In a statement, the reformist group Call to Action offered a similar prescription, imagining a Benedict successor who "will choose inclusivity rather than exclusion."
St. Peter's Church parishioner Michael Muldoon said he'd like to see a more youthful pope, "someone a little more forward-thinking, someone a little more accepting."
"It's a new beginning and a chance for new energy in the church," said the Rev. Ed Shea of the Loop church.
Carmen Aguinaco, president of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry, said the Latino community is looking for a more vocal advocate in the next pope, especially when it comes to social justice and "defending the dignity of people to live, to work, to move around."
"We would welcome anybody who has those values, but we would be overjoyed if we had a Latino pope," Aguinaco said. On these issues, the Latino community needs a "louder voice," she added.
Ian McBride, 29, a social worker who attended St. Alphonsus' 8:30 a.m. Mass, called Benedict's acknowledgment that he no longer could serve a "measure of humility."
"If you can't fulfill the duties to guide the church, then you can't argue with that," said Kathleen Falk, 27, a nurse, as she walked out of St. Alphonsus with McBride.
Like other Chicago Catholics, Hauter could hardly believe Benedict's decision. When she came downstairs for coffee about 6 a.m., she thought her husband was joking about the pope's announcement.
She finally turned on the TV. "Disbelief and then shock," Hauter recalled.
Even the pontiff's closest confidants reportedly were blindsided by the pope's announcement, which he delivered in Latin to Vatican officials.
Benedict has been "longing to get back to Germany and spend some time studying and writing and reflecting," said the Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Chicago-based Catholic Theological Union and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. "That's probably always been in the back of his mind. He must have thought it's time to do that."
"There was no rumor, not even among the clergy," said the Rev. Bart Juncer of St. John Cantius Parish in the River West neighborhood.
The news touched off a flood of praise.
The Rev. Robert Barron applauded Benedict for his "extraordinary intellectual focus" and "evangelical clarity," crediting the departing pope with shaping a new generation of aspiring priests at Mundelein Seminary.
"Benedict did impact these guys," said Barron, the seminary's rector. "It was his focus on the divine love and on charity. It was the prayerfulness of Benedict."
Juncer rattled off several qualities he associated with the "great leader" he watched five years ago from the fifth row at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York: "I saw him as a very pastoral man, a very compassionate man, a very gentle man," Juncer said.
"He has been a steady and calm presence in the face of tumult in the world," Joliet Bishop R. Daniel Conlin said in a statement. "He has persevered in Blessed John Paul II's determination to confront the scandal of child abuse in the church."
McBride couldn't say whether that issue would tarnish Benedict's legacy.
"Time will tell," he said. "In the American church, dealing with the abuse and all that — he took that personally. … He seemed to be very genuine and ashamed of how things happened."
For Hauter, Benedict's remorse wasn't enough. She called him a "brilliant theologian" but an insufficient leader who offered only lip service to glaring blemishes on the church's record.
"He had every opportunity to turn that around, and he spoke vacant words," Hauter said of the abuse scandal. "There's so much that he could've done, but he didn't do."
Tribune reporters Manya Brachear and Adam Sege contributed.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun