The bells toll. The noon mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption in downtown Louisville happens every Monday, and the stream of people walking into the doors showed no signs that something significant had happened within the Roman Catholic Church just hours before.
Pope Benedict XVI had announced that he was retiring on Feb. 28, citing his health and age. He’s the first to resign in more than 600 years; the first to willfully do it since the 1200s.
“He prayed a lot about it, I’m sure,” said Robert Carlson, of La Grange, as he stood on the steps into the Cathedral of the Assumption.
Benedict’s resignation is a shock to many Catholics—but not to Gregory Hillis, an assistant professor of theology at Bellarmine University. On his blog, Hillis noted on his blog that Benedict, now 85, had discussed the prospects of popes leaving office if they were no longer fully capable.
Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, remained pope even after his health had clearly deteriorated, until his death in 2005.
“I think the reality is that human beings are just living longer than they were in the early Christian period and the medieval period. And the reality is we’re able to live longer with very visible infirmities such as Pope John Paul II did,” Hills told WFPL.
Benedict’s resignation may set a precedent for future popes to retire, Hillis argues.
Hillis added that he believes the discussion of Benedict’s legacy is often misguided.
“I think that many, many Catholics—not just lay Catholics but I think a number of clergy as well—have misunderstood Pope Benedict XVI,” he said. “In other words, it’s very easy to label somebody like Benedict as a conservative without recognizing the subtly of this thought and the complexity of his thought and the complexity of the job, as well.”
The other question that immediately follows the departure of a pope—through resignation or graver means—is who’ll come next. As he entered the Cathedral of the Assumption Monday for mass, Robert Carlson of La Grange wouldn’t even venture at a general guess for what’s next in the Vatican.
“That’s in God’s hands,” Carlson said.
Likewise, Joseph Kurtz, the Archbishop of Louisville, declined to speculate on Monday.
The question is already the source of intense speculation around the world. The Irish bookmaking website PaddyPower.com has odds going already. (On Monday afternoon, Archbishop Peter Turkson, of Ghana, was the favorite at 3-1, followed by the Canadian Archbishop Marc Ouellet at 7-2.)
Hillis said he believes the next pope will be European—because most of the cardinals who’ll elect the next pope are from Europe.
Still, Hillis expects cardinals from Africa and Latin America to have support among cardinals, as well.
But, he added, Catholics shouldn’t expect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor to be vastly different. For starters, all the electing cardinals were appointed by Benedict or John Paul II.