Pope Benedict XVI shocked millions of Catholics Monday morning by announcing he would become the first pontiff to resign the papacy in more than 600 years.
Speaking at a news conference from the Archdiocese of Seattle, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain told reporters the announcement was a surprise for him as well. But Sartain said he understands the reasons given by the pope—specifically that he no longer has the physical strength to carry on with his duties. (Click here to read Benedict XVI's resignation letter.)
"It was something that he clearly had thought about and prayed about," Sartain said of the 85-year-old pontiff, whom he has met several times.
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Sartain said he thinks Benedict's greatest legacy will be his guidance on the full implementation of Vatican II, but he also acknowledged the criticism the pope has received for his handling of the Catholic church's ongoing sex-abuse scandal.
"It's been a terrible burden for him, as it has for everyone in the church," he said.
Summing up Benedict's legacy over his short seven-year leadership -- particularly when contrasted with the enduring career of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, is unfair, said Mathew Weisbeck, pastor associate at Sacred Heart Church in Enumclaw. "It's a big job trying to keep over a billion people unified," Weisbeck said. "Everyone does it in a different way; it's hard following somebody that was so amazing."
Benedict's resignation will become official Feb. 28, at which time the 210-member College of Cardinals will elect a new pope. A Vatican spokesman told The New York Times a new pontiff could be in place before Easter.
Sartain said he is not speculating on who will become Benedict's successor but said he is confident the transition will go smoothly.
"I don't think we're going to see any huge change or any huge break," he said.
But Bellevue resident Joe Hesketh, a member of St. Louise Parish for 42 years, said he hopes the next pope will be more open about controversial issues, like whether women should be allowed to enter the priesthood.
“Hopefully we’ll get someone who is less conservative to take over,” Hesketh said.
Weisbeck pointed out that both John Paul II and Benedict represent European experiences while a large number of Catholics around the world today live outside the continent. "It would be wonderful to have someone who has that experience of being from and living in the third world. It'd be an exciting and challenging thing for us."
Pastor Cara Scriven of Redmond United Methodist Church said she was also surprised by the announcement. Scriven, who grew up Catholic, said the next pontiff could set a new tone for the way Catholics and Protestants work together as well as shift the way the church responds to changes in society.
“It’ll be interesting to see how this affects all of that," Scriven said. "It’s intriguing."
Kelsey Harrington, youth minister at Enumclaw's Sacred Heart Church said she'd look forward to someone who could help connect the church with young people but doesn't discount the message that Benedict gave today with his resignation. "We don't see examples of humility a lot and of people stepping down when their time is up," she said. "I think this decision is one he made with great prayer and for the people of his church."