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Howard County Catholic leaders react to Pope Benedict's resignation

With the sudden and abrupt news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation from the papacy, leaders in Howard County reacted much the same way as the rest of the world: with shock and surprise.

"In this day and age, they serve until they're called home by the Lord," said Msgr. Joseph Luca, pastor at St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville, where morning worshipers had an overall reaction of "a big surprise."

Early Monday, Feb. 11, the 85-year-old pontiff announced his resignation, effective Feb. 28, citing his health and age. Benedict, who has been pope since 2005, is the first pope to resign since 1415.

By the time Howard Countians woke up early Monday morning, news of Benedict's resignation had spread across the world. While the initial reaction was shock for many, the emotion gave way to acceptance as the hours passed.

"There is a moment of grace happening here," said Phyllis Belden, of Columbia and a parishioner at St. Louis. "He has chosen to do something quite humble. ... I feel very peaceful, and I can't wait to hear what happens from here on out. I'm so thankful for the eight years he gave us, and his loving sheparding of our church. He knew what was right thing for him, and I'm sure he didn't make this decision lightly."

The Rev. Dennis Diehl, pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Fulton, said he imagined cardinals across the globe had started making travel arrangements for Rome. Cardinals in the papal conclave must convene within 20 days after a pope's death — or in this case, resignation — to elect a new leader, and Diehl said the conclave could meet as soon as March 1.

With Lent beginning this week, and Holy Week — including Holy Thursday, Good Friday— approaching, a new pope could be named by Easter. This is good for two reasons, local leaders said: it alleviates Benedict of the strenuous task of presiding over Holy Week celebrations, and it will allow the new pope to be introduced to the world during one of the holiest seasons in the Catholic calendar, and a season when much attention is focused on the Vatican.

"Holy Week is a very demanding time, and having a new pope in place for Easter would be such a nice introduction to the world," said Msgr. John Dietzenbach, pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City.

Local Catholic leaders hoped that Benedict's tradition-breaking resignation would set a precedent for future popes.

"(His resignation) opens the door, and it's a good thing to have that door open," Luca said. "He has given subsequent popes the freedom to make that choice. ... He gave up that position in sacrifice because he believes in the greater good, passing on the job to someone who may be better equipped to lead the church. It takes a lot of courage to be the one to break the tradition."

Benedict will be remembered as a theologian, writer and teacher, Diehl said, and as a "a very pastoral man, who reached out to and comforted a lot of people."

Benedict showed Catholics "that you can enter into a dialogue in a kind and loving way," Luca said. "That's a great lesson for our day and age. ... We see it in so many aspects of our culture today, that rather than allowing for diversity and dialogue, we want to drown out others who might be different than us. He held strong to our beliefs, ... but he did it in a kind, gentle and loving manner."

Local leaders said they hoped the next pope would be a good shepherd of the church, a spiritual man with strong faith and high energy. Or, as Dietzenbach said: young.

"Maybe someone in their 60s is a bit young for pope, but the job demands a lot of energy," he said.

John Paul II, who Benedict replaced after the former's death in 2005, was 58 when his papacy began 1978. In contrast, Benedict was 78 when he was elected pope.

"I think there's something to be said for having a young person — John Paul II was a very vibrant young man who traveled quite a bit, and that energizes the church," Diehl said. "An older person brings wisdom from their time. I just hope it's someone who is a good pastor, someone who will lead the church and people closer to God."

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