A once-in-a-600-year event is leading to a special open forum at St. Margaret Catholic Church in Bel Air for the next two weekends.
Msgr. Michael Schleupner, pastor of the parish, plans to host "An Open Conversation" on the resignation of Pope Benedict "and the issues now facing our Church" at 1 p.m. Sunday at the church on Hickory Avenue and at noon on March 10 at the church's St. Mary Magdalen Mission, off Route 22 in Fountain Green.
Schleupner will also speak at all Masses this weekend on the topic, addressing such issues as the handling of sex abuse cases, which he said happened to occur during Benedict's reign.
On Feb. 11, Pope Benedict shocked the world, and especially Catholics, by announcing he would resign at the end of February, citing his age and declining health. He was chosen to lead the church in 2005.
"This type of thing hasn't happened for 598 years, for a pope to resign," Schleupner said Wednesday, explaining why he wants to have a dialogue with parishioners about it.
During a small group session in the parish last Sunday, he said, "we also got into some of the problems confronting the church right now, coinciding [Benedict's] decision to resign."
Schleupner emphasized "coinciding, not causing."
The small group of about 25 people, he continued, "convinced me, from the experience, that we should probably talk about this a little more fully."
Schleupner said he has had open forums like this before but only rarely.
As for what his parishioners might be feeling on the topic, Schleupner guessed: "I think it's probably all over the ballpark."
"I think some people – I can see it in their faces – are saddened by the resignation, because they like him and are saddened by all the allegations that have arisen," he said. "Some have serious questions about it. Some are angry."
"As a pastor, the question I ask myself is, do I have some responsibility as a pastor to lead us spiritually through this," he said.
Schleupner said he talked with his whole staff recently and concluded he should move forward with the open discussion.
"Much better that something should be talked about than not talked about," he explained, adding he became "pretty resolute" about doing it by Tuesday afternoon.
"I trust God," he said about the outcome of the forum. "We do our best in ministry and the Lord will be with us."
He said the forum will be guided by questions and a dialogue based on what people are interested in discussing.
Asked what he hopes the forum will accomplish, he said: "That we, as a Catholic parish, can be open in talking about this, can be free in talking about it and, I think, in freely discussing these things, we grapple with them and deal with them."