Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world Monday by announcing plans to retire at the end of the month — making him the first pope in 600 years to resign.
Among those who didn't anticipate this news are some area Catholics, including Dr. Matthew Ramage, a professor of theology at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. Dr. Ramage teaches two classes on Benedict: One on the pope's Scriptural interpretation and one on his thoughts on a variety of other topics.
Yet despite his expertise on the mind of the pope, the resignation "still came as a complete surprise," Dr. Ramage said. "Even the cardinals and bishops of the church were completely surprised."
He added, however, that in retrospect, Benedict's decision makes sense. The 85-year-old's health has declined, and his older brother has commented on him being very tired. Also, in the book "Light of the World," Benedict stated that if the pope "clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign."
But the move — so unprecedented in recent history — shows that Benedict is not afraid to break with tradition, Dr. Ramage said.
"It's characteristic of his thought," he added. "He's a very spontaneous man. He does his own thing according to what he knows is right."
As for what makes this particular decision appropriate for Benedict when it isn't what was chosen by so many previous popes: Dr. Ramage made note of the different ways different popes have reflected Christ.
"John Paul II was beloved because he reigned so long and showed strength even in suffering," he said, while "(Benedict's) way of showing the cross of Jesus was this act of humility."
Benedictine College President Stephen Minnis also described Benedict's decision as one that's in keeping with his character.
"This is a pope that's been kind of surprising everyone since he became the pope," Mr. Minnis said. "He has gone against popular opinion before."
Mr. Minnis added that he's had several opportunities to see Benedict in person, including once last fall in which he saw him up close at a Mass. The pope did look frailer then than he remembered him looking a couple of years earlier, he said.
Benedict's resignation allows for a conclave before Easter to elect a new pope, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed. Being more than 80 years old — the age limit for voting on a new pope — Benedict is unlikely to have a role in choosing his successor.
This highlights that he was motivated purely by the good of the church rather than any sort of selfish agenda, Dr. Ramage said. And both he and others praised the humility displayed by Benedict's decision.
"I commend Pope Benedict for the wisdom and humility to discern his inability to continue his papacy due to failing health," Kathy Powers, a pastoral associate with Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in St. Joseph, said. "I hope and pray for the election of a new pope whose vision and teachings will be compatible with the reforms of Vatican II."
The Rev. Thomas Ludwig, the church's pastor, also expressed admiration for Benedict's humility — as well as hope that following the initial shock of the pope's announcement, the church's response will be one of prayer.
"I think it's important we as a Catholic community offer our prayers for Benedict XVI and for the college of cardinals as they elect a new pope," he said.