“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.