The last time Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory saw Pope Benedict XVI in May, the 85-year-old pontiff “showed his age.”
Still, Gregory was just as stunned as anyone by Monday’s surprising announcement out of Rome that the pope planned to step down at the end of the month because of his health and his concerns that he lacked the stamina to fulfill his responsibilities as leader of more than 1 billion Roman Catholics worldwide.
In doing so, the German-born pope, who was elected in 2005 when he was 78, becomes the first pope in six centuries to resign from office.
Gregory described the pope as a man of “extraordinary wisdom and deep faith” and said the decision was likely made “for the good of the church that he loves with all of his heart.”
The meeting in May came during the pastoral visit that bishops must make to Rome every five or so years to report on the state of their diocese.
“Having been with him on many occasions over the past 20 years, I remember him as a very engaging and energetic individual, eager to enter into dialogue and to make himself available,’ Gregory said. “In May, he was noticeably tired.”
Gregory said the pope’s love for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which has more than 1 million Catholics, was evident with the appointment of a second auxiliary bishop — Bishop-elect David Talley.
The archbishop offered prayers for the pope Monday during the regularly scheduled Mass, which is held weekdays at the archdiocese’s office in Smyrna.
The news stunned many in metro Atlanta’s Catholic community.
“I felt like I had been hit in the stomach,” said Mary-Ann Fitzpatrick, a member of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, who attended the Mass. “He’s our father and a member of our family. There is a sadness for us losing him.”
Fitzpatrick, a Catholic since birth, praised Benedict for adhering to traditions “that mean so much to me.”
“In this world of political correctness and whitewashing,” she said, “he always stood up for what he believed.”
Phillip M. Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University, called Benedict “a pope who has enforced theological orthodoxy and has initiated the new evangelization.”
“He has been an articulate and deep spokesperson for the church,” Thompson said. “He has launched some new areas of emphasis such as ecology. He has been called the ‘green Pope.’ “
Some critics may say Benedict is leaving as the church still grapples with fallout from the sexual abuse scandal and as it tackles topics such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
“We’re going to be dealing those for a while, I suspect,” Thompson said. “Some issues are more prominent at a given moment. The next pope will definitely have to deal with them and what is the nature of the church, what is the role of women in the church.”
Ed Yarosz, a consulting psychologist for the metro tribunal that reviews requests for annulments, credited the pope with energizing the Catholic Church in the United States. “He was just a good example of what it is to be a good Christian leader.”
Once the shock of the pope’s departure wears off, many Catholics will likely turn their attention to the future of the church and its next leader.
“I think the Holy Spirit needs to guide them to the right guy,” Yarosz said.
Many hope the next pope might be from the developing world, perhaps from Africa, Asia or Central or South America. And, some say, younger.
Even in the United States, some of the fastest growth has come from Latinos.
For his part, Gregory said the next pope should be a “pope of wisdom, pastoral experience, intellectual prowess, administrative capacity, someone who can respond to the needs of the world as they are today.”
“So I’m not concerned about ethnicity,” Gregory said. “I’m not so concerned about an ideological position.”