Local Catholics react to Pope’s announcement

By Joan Kurkowski-Gillen


February 12, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd as he departs Yankee Stadium after celebrating Mass in New York April 20. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd as he departs Yankee Stadium after celebrating Mass in New York April 20, 2008. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

When 105 University of Dallas students signed up to study at the school’s Eugene Constantin Rome campus this spring, becoming eyewitnesses to Church history was something they never anticipated.

But that’s what happened Feb. 10 when Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement from the papacy effective Feb. 28. The spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics cited failing health as the reason for his historic and unexpected decision. A pontiff hasn’t resigned since Pope Gregory XII abdicated the office to end a Schism within the Church almost 600 years ago.

University of Dallas students now have the opportunity to experience the election of a pope and Holy Week activities from a campus that’s a mere 10 miles from the Vatican.

“The students are totally taken by this event,” said Dr. Peter Hatlie, director and dean of UD’s Rome program who met with undergraduates to discuss the issue and its implications during a scheduled Feb. 11 meeting. “It’s really going to recalibrate our semester. We’re going to take every measure possible to make sure they can be in Rome and live this once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Rome is typically a relaxed city but the mood changes with significant papal news. Hatlie was living in Rome when Pope John PauI II died and was succeeded by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in 2005.

“Italy in general, but especially Rome goes into high speed,” the educator suggested. “The newspapers will have pages and pages of stories everyday about what’s happening.”

Hours after Pope Benedict’s announcement, Italian radio stations were totally dedicated to covering the story.

“I think our students are ready to put down their pens and go to St. Peter’s Square starting tomorrow. There is huge enthusiasm,” Hatlie said. “The news was stunning.”

Special excursions and speakers will offer students background information and insight into the papal election. Looking back on early church history and reconstructing Pope Gregory’s 15th century papacy is one lecture UD students can expect to hear, he continued.

Living near the Eternal City as the world welcomes a new pope is a formative experience for UD students.

“We often talk about transforming lives in higher education. This event will absolutely have that effect,” Hatlie promised.

In North Texas, Catholics wonder how a change in the papacy will affect the Diocese of Fort Worth. Parishioners hoped for the quick appointment of a new bishop to succeed Bishop Kevin Vann who was reassigned to the Diocese of Orange, California by Pope Benedict in September 2012. Many speculate the election of a new pope could delay the process.

“We await God’s will for the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth as we look forward to the appointment of our next bishop,” said Diocesan Administrator Monsignor Stephen Berg in a statement following the pope’s resignation announcement. “We also await God’s grace of wisdom as the College of Cardinals begins their conclave to elect our new pope.”

Msgr. Berg said Pope Benedict’s plan to retire demonstrates his humility and deep devotion to the Church.

“I ask the people of the Diocese of Fort Worth to please pray for Pope Benedict, in thanksgiving for his unselfish ministry as our Holy Father, and that he may continue to experience God’s gifts of grace and peace in his retirement,” he added.

Immaculate Conception Deacon Emilio (Popo) Gonzalez fielded calls from concerned parishioners after the pope’s statement.

“First we’re struggling without a bishop and now a pope. But God will take care of all that,” the deacon explained confidently. “We worry too much. God has his plan.”

Like the rest of the world, Dcn. Gonzalez was surprised by the Pope’s plans to retire but understands his decision. When Pope Benedict leaves office Feb. 28 at the age of 85, he will have outlived all but three of his 264 predecessors. At 78, he was the oldest man elected to the Chair of St. Peter in 300 years.

“I don’t blame him. His health is failing. He’s tired and feels he can no longer stay on as pope,” the deacon sympathizes.

Pundits speculate the new pope could hail from Africa, Asia, or Latin America — a pleasing thought to Dcn. Gonzalez who ministers to a burgeoning Hispanic community in Denton.

“A pope from a Latin American country? That’s what I’m hoping for,” he admitted. “Latin Americans are almost 100 percent Catholic and having a pope from Latin America would only make us stronger and very proud.”

Pope Benedict XVI was the first German elected to the papacy since 1523.

Sister Francesca Walterscheid, SSMN, took advantage of her shared heritage with the pontiff during a 2009 papal audience. During a trip to Italy’s shrines with 500 other pilgrims from the Diocese of Fort Worth, the Muenster native and the late Monsignor Charles King were chosen to meet the pope.

“I spoke to him in German,” said the sister who still vividly recalls the Holy Father’s heartwarming, friendly smile. “He was so expressive.”

Given only a few moments to shake hands with Pope Benedict, the Fort Worth tourist remembers uttering, “we love you” in his native language.

“He responded but I don’t know what he said. I was pretty overwhelmed,” she confessed. “I was so honored to meet him. It’s a nice memory to have.”

St. Francesca, who lives with other members of her religious community at Our Lady of Victory Center, said the sisters turned on a television newscast after hearing initial reports of the pope’s retirement. Although the decision is precedent-setting in modern times, she supports his decision.

“He’s intelligent enough to know if it’s time to leave,” the sister explained. “At his age it’s difficult to carry the world on your shoulders.”

The 117 voting members of the College of Cardinals will convene before Easter to select a successor to Pope Benedict. Any cardinal may participate in the discussions, but only those younger than 80 may vote.

Immediately following his Feb. 28 resignation, the pontiff will spend time at Castel Gandolfo, a summer retreat south of Rome near the University of Dallas’ campus. He will later move to a cloistered monastery, according to Vatican reports.

When 105 University of Dallas students signed up to study at the school’s Eugene Constantin Rome campus this spring, becoming eyewitnesses to Church history was something they never anticipated.

Published (until 12/31/2031)