BY TOM DALTON
---- — The Rev. Paul McManus was sound asleep when the phone rang early yesterday morning.
“I was woken up by a Hispanic member of the community,” said McManus, who celebrates the Spanish masses at Catholic churches in Peabody and Salem.
“The pope is resigning,” the excited caller said.
“No, he isn’t,” replied the priest, who was barely awake and couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
McManus wasn’t the only person who reacted with disbelief to the shocking news that Pope Benedict XVI plans to resign at the end of the month — and with good reason. It has not happened in 600 years.
“Stunned,” said the Rev. John Sheridan, pastor of St. James Church in Salem. “I am just as stunned as everyone else.”
Pope Benedict, 85, who took office in 2005, said “advanced age” and ill health prevent him from continuing to lead the world’s 1 billion Catholics.
Although it’s a dramatic break with tradition, the pope may be doing what is best for the church, several local Catholics said.
“It was unusual, there’s no question about it,” said Thaddeus Buczko of Salem, a retired judge who was close to the pontiff’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
“If it’s a medical situation, then I think he’s saving everyone the problem of what we do if we have a person not able to carry out his duties and responsibilities. ... He’s taking the initiative.”
There was speculation that Benedict, longtime head of an office overseeing church doctrine, had watched John Paul struggle with ill health and did not want the church to go through another difficult transition.
“He saw his good friend’s ... demise, and much of church governance fell on his shoulders while the pope was incapacitated, so I’m sure this had an influence,” said McManus.
“I actually find it an encouraging development,” said Tal Howard, director of the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College in Wenham. “A number of popes have probably lived longer than their wits. This may be an important precedent for future popes — you don’t have to die in office.”
Along with shock, there was a sense that it may be time for a change in church leadership.
“I can’t help but think of (yesterday’s) Gospel,” said Sheridan. “Jesus talked about new wine. This was a time for transition, a change. ... As much as a blessing (Benedict) has been for us, this is a time, perhaps, for him to let go, for someone else to step forward.”
Speculation about a successor, of course, has already started. While seen as a long shot, there is talk of another “first” for the Catholic Church, possibly a pope from South America, Africa or another area where the church is growing.
“I guess there was always talk of the first Latino pope,” said Lucy Corchado, director of the Spanish choir at Immaculate Conception Church in Salem. “I don’t know.”
Corchado said it may be more important to choose a pope “who can mend the faith that so many have lost, to bring more people back into the church.”
Jolene Guerra of Topsfield, a member of Voice of the Faithful on the North Shore, a lay Catholic group formed in response to the priest sex abuse scandal, does not expect a new pope will bring significant change.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of new direction,” she said, “... because (many of) the cardinals that will be making the choice ... were chosen by the last two popes.”
A Vatican spokesman said a new pope should be elected by Easter.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.