A senior Catholic Church leader in South Africa says the resignation of Pope Benedict came as a surprise, but that he will be well remembered for his work. Could Benedict’s departure signal the coming of an African pope? On that decision, Archbishop William Slattery said he defers to a higher power.
News of the pope’s resignation caught most people off guard in southern Africa, where the Catholic Church claims a healthy following and is active in a range of social and charitable programs.
Benedict is the first pope to resign in six centuries. He cited his advanced age - he’s 85 years old - as the main factor.
In South Africa, Archbishop William Slattery, the archbishop of Pretoria, said the news took him by surprise. He said the continent’s 170 million Catholics will remember the pope fondly.
"So we have a great sense of gratitude, because he was an excellent teacher and preacher. He was a totally committed and simple person, even though he was highly intelligent. And he will be remembered from a long time, with gratitude. And the Catholics of Africa in general, there are 170 million Catholics in general, we have great respect for the pope and we understand the reasons he gave for moving on,” said Slattery.
Eighteen of the 120 cardinals who will choose the next pope are African, and the archbishop said they will have a chance to put forward the candidate they want. He said that South America, which has an estimated 400 million Catholics, also might put up a candidate, as could Asia, where the Catholic Church is enjoying fast growth.
“Everything is open, we’ll just pray and ask for the guidance of God’s spirit," said Slattery. "The election of an African to the task would be a great joy to Africa, and also he would bring the gifts of Africa - the gifts of a deep faith, the gifts of a people who are responding to crisis very very generously at the moment. And so we just have to see and pray that the right decision will be made.”
Slattery praised Pope Benedict for visiting Africa several times and paying attention to the continent’s faithful and needy.
“Remember that in South Africa, where I am, 27 percent of the care of people suffering from AIDS is carried on by the Catholic Church. And this area Benedict spoke a lot to encourage us, and to enable us to respond to the needs of our people here in South Africa, and all over Africa, the same," he said. "Everywhere you go in Africa, every single country, you’ll find hospitals and clinics, education, the like... offered by the Catholic Church to the people of Africa, and Benedict would have been behind that.”
Benedict chose Angola for his first visit to Africa in 2009. The coastal nation is 60 percent Catholic, but that dominance is being threatened by the growth of evangelical churches. One million faithful came to see the pontiff in Angola, the largest turnout of his tour.
South Africa's Christians are predominantly Protestant, but about seven percent of South Africans are Catholic. In neighboring Mozambique, about 28 percent of the population is Catholic.
Pope Benedict greets the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, April 19, 2005.
Pope Benedict blesses a baby as he rides around St. Peter's Square to hold his last general audience at the Vatican Feb. 27, 2013.
Pope Benedict appears on a giant screen in a packed St. Peter's Square at the Vatican during his last general audience, February 27, 2013.
Pope Benedict arrives to attend a meeting with seminarians at the Romano Maggiore seminary in Rome, February 8, 2013.
Pope Benedict waves as he arrives to lead the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 18, 2012.
Pope Benedict wears a sombrero, a traditional Mexican hat, while being driven through the crowd before officiating a mass in Silao, Mexico, March 25, 2012.
Pope Benedict holds his cross as he leads a solemn mass in Zagreb, Croatia, June 5, 2011.
Pope Benedict visits the Ardeatine Caves Memorial in Rome, Italy, March 27, 2011.
Pope Benedict leaves after an audience with Vatican-accredited diplomats at the Vatican, January 10, 2011.
Pope Benedict visits the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 12, 2009.
Pope Benedict waves to the crowd gathered in Saint Peter's square during his weekly Angelus blessing at the Vatican, May 16, 2010.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama meet with Pope Benedict at the Vatican, July 10, 2009.