- - Monday, February 11, 2013

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI broke centuries of precedent Monday by resigning the papacy because of issues of old age, surprising the globe’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics and prompting speculation that the next pope will be the first non-European to lead the church in modern times.

Once the shock wore off, church leaders and followers praised Benedict’s legacy on such matters as liturgy and dealing with the church’s sex-abuse scandals, but also began to debate the merits of a younger pope who might reign for decades and be more representative of the global church, which has had its biggest recent membership increases in South America, Africa and Asia.

“Europe today is going through a period of cultural tiredness, exhaustion, which is reflected in the way Christianity is lived,” Bishop Antonio Marto of Fatima, Portugal, told reporters. “You don’t see that in Africa or Latin America, where there is a freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith.

“Perhaps we need a pope who can look beyond Europe and bring to the entire church a certain vitality that is seen on other continents,” he said.

‘This can’t be’

The 85-year-old Benedict said his resignation would take effect at the end of February and that he had “repeatedly examined my conscience before God” and had “come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of the papacy.

The message, delivered in Latin and translated into seven other languages, shocked many Catholics, lay and clerical.

“I was like, ‘The pope has resigned?’” said Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto. The Associated Press quoted Venezuelan churchgoer Alis Ramirez as insisting, “He can’t quit like that. This can’t be.”

The College of Cardinals, the elite group of prelates who elect the pope, will hand steep challenges to the next pontiff.

The ongoing clerical sex abuse scandal has roiled the church for more than a decade and has driven away millions of Catholics, especially in Europe and North America, where the old model of the “ethnic church” and related loyalty also has largely collapsed.

The Vatican is also reeling from another round of scandals over its bank, which led to, among other things, the arrest last year of the pope’s butler for leaking documents about financial corruption. Benedict has tried to improve the Vatican’s financial management, which has been viewed as corrupt for decades.

Just a few weeks ago, Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, who heads the Vatican’s department for Christian unity, noted that church’s future might lie outside Europe, where its popularity and following has declined over the past decade.

“It would be good if there were candidates from Africa or South America at the next conclave,” Cardinal Koch said, according to The Telegraph.

Andreas Dingstad, a spokesman for the Catholic diocese in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, said the time might be right for a “youngish” pope, possibly from the developing world.

“The church is growing most in the south. So I think lots of people will be ready for a pope from Africa, Asia or South America,” Mr. Dingstad said. “But who knows; it’s the early days still.”

Story Continues →