Archbishop William E. Lori of the nation’s oldest Catholic diocese urged people to pray for Pope Benedict XVI and the Roman Catholic Church after the pope announced his resignation Monday, the first to do so in 600 years.
“His Holiness is a profound and loving teacher of the faith, a courageous defender ... of human rights and dignity and a man of prayer, humility and wisdom,” Lori, who heads the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said in a statement he read at a news conference.
“My single task this morning is to request the prayers of the faithful of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and all women and men of good will for Pope Benedict as he concludes his long and loving service to the church,” Lori said. “I also ask prayers for the church herself as preparations are made for the election of Pope Benedict’s successor.”
The population of Maryland — which was founded in part as a colonial-era haven for English Catholics — is about 25 percent Roman Catholic, a higher percentage than any single Protestant denomination in the state.
The election of a new pope by the gathering of the cardinals in Rome will give Catholics across the globe a chance to renew their bonds with the church, said Lyle Weiss, assistant professor of religious studies at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore.
“Like most of the rest of the world, I’m a little bit shocked,” Weiss said of the pope’s announcement. “It’s not, obviously, a common occurrence.”
The election of a new pope presents the church with an opportunity to move in a new direction regarding women, birth control and other issues, but that’s not likely to happen, Weiss said.
While some speculate the cardinals will select someone from the developing world as a way to signal the importance of the growing numbers of Catholics in Asia and Africa, no one is considered a front-runner, he said.
“This is an opportunity for the spirit to lead the church in a different way,” Weiss said. “Which is a very long-winded way of saying, ‘We don’t know.’”
Monsignor Stuart Swetland, vice president of Catholic identity at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, said he had about 60 people show up for Mass on Monday afternoon after word had spread that the pope would resign.
Typically, Swetland said, the service draws about 50.
The outgoing pope will be remembered as a teacher and a shepherd to the more than 1 billion Roman Catholics worldwide, Swetland said.
“It’s not a coincidence that he chose today,” said Swetland, who said the pope’s timing was instructive.
Monday, Swetland said, falls on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes — a day that is synonymous with healing. The pope’s decision was heroic and instructive as it addresses aging and vocation, he said.
“It is impressive that he would have the courage to admit that the office is becoming too much of a burden for him,” he said. “However, he’s not saying he’s finishing everything. He will continue with a life of prayer.”
Monsignor Robert Jaskot of Holy Family Catholic Community in Middletown in Frederick County said he was surprised by the pontiff’s announcement.
“It reflects the humility, the gentleness, the strength of Pope Benedict,” Jaskot said.
Barbara Anderson, pastoral life director at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Anthony’s Parish, which has churches in Emmitsburg and Thurmont, said the pope also will be remembered for his outreach to young people, continuing the legacy of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
The pontiff also stepped in during what Anderson said was a difficult time for the church, which was dealing with the fallout from the sexual abuse of young people by priests and its coverup.
“He continued to reach out and extend a helping hand or at least a consoling hand to the victims and to the whole church,” said Anderson, who met the pope during his visit to the U.S. in 2008.
Jaskot, who greeted Pope Benedict during his visits to Washignton, D.C., and New York in 2008, said Benedict will be remembered as a great scholar.
“He brings an intellectual dimension to our faith, always coupled with the great, great spirituality,” Jaskot said.
Staff Writer A.J. McCombs contributed to this report.