People will most remember Pope Benedict XVI for leaving his position as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, instead of the changes he made while he was pope, a Greenwood priest said.
The pope announced Monday he will resign on Feb. 28, making him the first pope to do so since 1415.
But that decision also could change the tradition of being pope until death and modernize the position with more youthful and energetic leaders, a religious studies professor said.
Monsignor Mark Svarczkopf, of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, said he was shocked to hear the news of the retirement on a morning talk show.
“It was a surprise for everybody this morning. The most important thing everybody’s going to remember is that he retired. I do know that popes have retired before, but in modern times, no,” Svarczkopf said.
Svarczkopf said then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been the obvious choice to replace Pope John Paul II in 2005. He said that, since then, the pope has made the Catholic Church more modern in his choices of whom to elevate as cardinals and his use of social media.
“He was the first pope to be on Twitter, that’s for sure,” Svarczkopf said.
Franklin College professor of religious studies David Carlson said Benedict’s decision to step down also was a modern choice.
The pope is expected to travel much more now than 100 years ago and to work from the time he wakes up until he goes to sleep, which means the person in the position needs to be healthy and energetic, Carlson said.
The church’s tradition is for a pope to be in the position until he dies, but Carlson said future popes could follow Benedict’s example and decide to retire, so that younger, more energetic people can take their place and carry on the responsibilities.
“Now, this could become the new precedent in keeping with the modern world. Leadership for life is really not a modern model,” he said.
Benedict took over the position at age 78, a time when most people would be retired, and his health has declined over the past year, Carlson said.
Svarczkopf said he understands the pope’s decision to step down and thinks now most likely is the best time to do so, because the Catholic Church is stable.
“He might have thought, ‘The church isn’t in any crisis right now, it’s in a good place for me to retire. I don’t need to stay on to make sure nothing bad happens,’” Svarczkopf said.
Svarczkopf met Ratzinger while working at the Vatican more than 10 years ago and said the then-cardinal was a smart theologian and a great listener. One year, a group of students chose Ratzinger to ordain them, and Ratzinger made sure to ask the students what they wanted him to do at the ceremony, Svarczkopf said.
Carlson said Benedict is more loving and compassionate than he expected, and he will remember the pope for trying to get more people in Europe to return to the Christian faith.
Svarczkopf looks forward to learning who will take over the title.
“There’s not a big No. 2 name in the Vatican. When you would say Cardinal Ratzinger’s name before he became pope, everyone recognized it. There isn’t anyone like that now,” Svarczkopf said.