STEUBENVILLE - The spiritual leader of the Catholic Diocese of Steubenville said he was "surprised and stunned" Monday when he heard Pope Benedict XVI planned to resign effective Feb. 28.
"We as a church will be listening to the Holy Spirit. This is a special time for the church. I had no chapter in canon law while I was in the seminary on the resignation of a pope. This is the first resignation in 700 years. But whatever decision the pope makes on his future will be for the good of the church. I imagine he will seek solitude and quiet prayer," according to Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton.
Vatican officials have said Pope Benedict will first move to Castel Gandolfo, in the hills outside Rome, and later to a monastery in Vatican City.
SURPRISED — Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton of the Catholic Diocese of Steubenville said he was “surprised and stunned” to learn Monday that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at the end of February. Monforton met with local reporters Monday to discuss the pope’s plan to resign from the papacy.
"We awoke to the startling and breaking news that Our Holy Pope Benedict XVI will resign his service as the successor of St. Peter at the end of this month. The Gospel passage today is apropos as Jesus visited the sick in need of healing. We entrust our beloved holy father to the divine physician, Jesus Christ, as Pope Benedict prepares to step down from his office for the good of the church. As today we celebrate the World Day of the Sick, may our holy father remain in our prayers in this the final month of his pontificate," Monforton said during a Monday meeting with local news reporters.
"I still remember my meeting with Pope Benedict in September after I was appointed by him to serve as bishop of the Diocese of Steubenville. He was dealing with the challenges of health issues and leading the church at the age of 85," remarked Monforton.
"I am gratified to have the opportunity to meet with him on Sept. 20 at Castel Gandolfo. I approached the holy father, genuflected and kissed his ring. I wasn't sure of the protocol when addressing the holy father, but I thanked him for appointing me bishop of Steubenville. He replied that the diocese had the university. The Franciscan University has an international position in the Catholic church," related Monforton.
"He has the weight of the church on his shoulders and that comes with a great price. This was not an option that he decided on in the past few days. The pope did a lot of soul searching and he spent a lot of time praying with the Lord," said Monforton.
"I have seen great progress during the time of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. I believe the church will continue to move forward in a progressive way," he noted.
"I was fortunate as the secretary to Cardinal Adam J. Maida to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II and be at the Vatican during the conclave that saw Pope Benedict elected pope. There will undoubtedly be a lot of speculation who will succeed Pope Benedict. But I do not know who God will select," Monforton declared.
Bishop Michael Bransfield of the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston issued a prepared statement Monday stating Pope Benedict XVI, "is showing the great love and devotion he has for the church, specifically his devotion to Christ our savior."
"The holy father is being realistic about his physical limitations at this time in his life. I admire him for his courage and humility," Bransfield said.
Although the pope's resignation was very sudden, Bransfield said that "we always trust in the Holy Spirit and ultimately, because the upcoming Lenten season is a deeply spiritual time for Catholics, we must continue to have great trust in the Holy Spirit during this period of transition in our church."
Bransfield said Pope Benedict has chosen a perfect time for his announcement. "With Lent forthcoming, a transition in the papacy can be accomplished before Easter, before spring."
Theology professors at Franciscan University of Steubenville offered their thoughts and comments on the pope's surprise announcement Monday morning with Regis Martin, professor of systematic theology, citing the "centerpiece of his life has always been the love of God monstrated before the world in the sending of his son. All else has been a footnote to that horizon-shattering event."
According to professor Scott Hahn, the Rev. Michael Scanlan, TOR, chair of Biblical theology and the New Evangelization at the university, "Back on April 29, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI did something rather striking, but which went largely unnoticed. He stopped off in Aquila, Italy, and visited the tomb of an obscure medieval pope named St. Celestine V. After a brief prayer, he left his pallium, the symbol of his own episcopal authority as bishop of Rome, on top of Celestine's tomb. Fifteen months later, on July 4, 2010, Benedict went out of his way again, this time to visit and pray in the cathedral of Sulmona, near Rome, before the relics of this same saint, Celestine V. At the time, however, few people seemed to notice. Only now, we may be gaining a better understanding of what it meant. These actions were probably more than pious acts. More likely, they were profound and symbolic gestures of a very personal nature, which conveyed a message that a pope can hardly deliver any other way."
The Rev. Sean Sheridan, TOR, canon lawyer and professor of theology at the university, said, "As a Catholic educator myself, I have come to value greatly the many teaching moments in which Pope Benedict XVI engaged during the course of his pontificate. In particular, with regard to Catholic universities such as Franciscan University, I recall that during his apostolic visit to the United States, on April 17, 2008, the holy father delivered an address to Catholic educators to encourage them to promote the Catholic identity of their respective institutions.
"It is apparent that the holy father, himself a former university professor, remained very concerned that Catholic identity should pervade all aspects of the life of a university that promotes itself as a Catholic university. The challenges that he presented will continue to influence the delivery of Catholic education for years to come. Pope Benedict XVI engaged in countless other significant teaching moments, the full impact of which will only come to be understood as we continue to study his writings," Sheridan added.
"Upon his election as pope, some predicted that Pope Benedict XVI would be a polarizing figure, continuing his long-held role as the Catholic church's chief doctrinal defender and 'censor.' Pope Benedict certainly did not avoid controversy in the pursuit of truth, engaging in honest and serious dialogue with other religions and with modern culture, unafraid to challenge the 'dictatorship of relativism.' Yet Pope Benedict was deeply committed to promoting reconciliation: among Christians, among nations and with those alienated from the Catholic church. Pope Benedict XVI has left a profound impression on the Catholic church and the world," stated professor Alan Schreck, acting dean of the university's theology department.
"While Pope Benedict's resignation is certainly unexpected, it is yet one more sign of the strong leadership he has exhibited throughout his papacy. It takes a particular kind of wisdom to know when to step down and a wonderful humility to do so," remarked the Rev. Terence Henry, TOR, president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
"I have nothing but the deepest admiration for all Pope Benedict has given to the church and the world. I am particularly grateful as a university president for the holy father's guidance on the mission and identity of Catholic education and his call for Catholic educators to ensure that 'every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith'. I am also especially grateful to Pope Benedict for his recognition of the 'grave threats' to religious liberty and freedom of conscience in this country and his encouragement to fight to retain the church's public moral witness," Henry said.