VATICAN CITY — People at the Vatican continue to express shock at the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning at the end of the month. But they were already thinking about the future of the 1.2-billion-member global Roman Catholic Church.
On St. Peter's Square, visitors from around the world were talking about the historic announcement, the first of its kind in nearly 600 years. Most people were sympathetic.
“In one way I am shocked because popes have quite often gone until they die, but on another side, I have admiration for his choice," said a woman who gave her name as Nicky.
Another visitor, Steve, said he understood. "I think Pope Benedict has set a new standard, really."
“My parents called me all the way from Colombia to tell me," said yet another tourist, Melissa. "We were all a bit shocked. Like, why? So, yeah, it was basically a shocking news.”
But at least one young woman from a South Korean Catholic family thought it was a bad decision.
“I was just shocked because... God selected him, so I think he needs to do his duty until his death," she said.
Reporter Alessandro Speciale, who covers the Vatican for the Religion News Service, said Pope Benedict “changed the job description” for future popes. The Roman Catholic Church suffered for lack of strong leadership during the declining years of the previous pope, John Paul II, Speciale said, adding that the church can not afford another period like that, particularly with the scandal of sexual abuse by priests still looming.
“The church is booming and it is very young, both as priests and as believers, in the southern part of the world, and so the risk of cases such as these is still very high there, and is potentially devastating for the church,” Speciale said.
Speciale said strong guidelines and enforcement are needed to prevent the church from losing the moral high ground in its main growth areas, Africa and Latin America.
There was lots of speculation on St. Peter's Square about whether the new pope might come from one of those areas. Most said they would welcome such a move that could bring the church closer to the people of the southern hemisphere. But they also said the pope's ethnicity is not as important as his spirituality, and his ability to inspire faith in others.