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Area Catholic leaders surprised by Pope Benedict XVI resignation

AP Photo Pope Benedict XVI greets the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica moments after being elected, at the Vatican on April 19, 2005. On Monday, Benedict XVI announced he would resign the papacy Feb. 28, the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.

The reaction in western North Dakota was largely the same as the reaction worldwide Monday after Pope Benedict XVI announced he would be resigning effective at the end of February.

Benedict, the first leader of the Catholic Church to step down in nearly 600 years, sent shock waves throughout the church.

"I was not just surprised, but saddened to find out on the news that our Holy Father announced he plans to resign his Petrine ministry as Bishop of Rome and as pope of the universal Catholic Church," Bishop David Kagan of the Bismarck Diocese said in a statement released Monday afternoon. "Since Pope Benedict XVI is the one who appointed me to be a bishop of the Church, I'm saddened that this has taken place."

In his resignation letter dated Sunday, Benedict cited "advanced age" and stated that his strength has "deteriorated to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry of Bishop of Rome."

The Rev. Keith Streifel of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Dickinson said the church will move forward, like it has for centuries.

"This comes as a bit of a surprise," said Streifel. "We should pray for Pope Benedict, as we always do, and for the cardinals who will enter the conclave, but the Holy Spirit will still guide the church."

Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, succeeded Pope John Paul II in April 2005 at age 78. Now 85, Benedict said in a letter that he plans to "devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer."

Pope Benedict XVI touched local Catholics through their leaders.

He last year named Fargo Bishop Samuel Aquila as new Archbishop in Denver.

The pope then assigned Kagan of Bismarck -- whom he had elevated to the office of bishop two years ago -- to serve as administrator of the Fargo diocese until a new bishop there is named.

Aquila happened to be in Fargo on Monday to dedicate a new chapel downtown, near the Cathedral of St. Mary, built for 24-hour-a-day adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Aquila, who for a decade was bishop of the Fargo diocese, which includes about 80,000 Catholics across eastern North Dakota, said in a news release Monday that Benedict was a man of "keen intelligence, great strength, compassion and humility" whose impact on the church "will be felt for generations to come."

"I ask all Christians, and all people of good will, to join me in lifting their hearts in gratitude to the Father for the ministry of Pope Benedict XVI in his service to Jesus Christ, the Church and all humanity.

"At 85, the Holy Father has heard the Lord call him to resign from his office due to his physical weakness and to prepare for a new shepherd to come forward in leadership to the Church," Aquila said.

Bishop Kagan, now effectively the top shepherd for all of North Dakota's 140,000 Catholics in the two dioceses, said Monday he is "not just surprised, but saddened" by the pope's announcement.

Kagan said he's confident God will "inspire the College of Cardinals to elect a worthy and capable successor" to the pope, who steps down Feb. 28.

Catholic experts say that while all popes selected the past thousand years have been from among the cardinals who do the voting, church law actually allows even a lay Catholic man to serve as pope, if he's unmarried. A non-priest was selected at least once, according to Catholic sources.

The last pope to step down was Gregory XII in 1415, according to church records.

What will be interesting now is how much of a role the retired pope could play in the selection of his successor, a first since before the Protestant Reformation.

Kagan said it's easy to understand the pope's decision based on the "grueling" schedule required of the office.

University of Mary President James Shea said in a press release Monday that the students at the school's Rome campus "certainly find themselves at the center of history today" and added "in Bismarck, we hear of the Holy Father's decision with sadness, but also with gratitude for his generosity and service to the church."

John Paul II was only 58 when he was elected pope in 1978; Benedict XVI was 78 when he was elected in April 2005.

"It's a great testimony not only to Pope Benedict's holiness and his humility, but to the regard and the esteem that he has for the office of the pope; that he is more than willing to give up this ministry so that someone younger and in more robust physical health can take over and lead the Church as he himself knows the Church needs to be guided by its chief shepherd, the Vicar of Christ on earth," Kagan said.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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