Diana Pasulka awoke early Monday morning to her cell phone ringing and news of Pope Benedict XVI's decision to resign after seven years as head of the Catholic Church.
"It's been an explosive morning. People were calling and saying what's going on, what's going on," Pasulka said. As a religion scholar and author of a forthcoming book about purgatory and American Catholic literature, her friends thought she might have insights into the papal process. "People are shocked and sad, and right now, it's too early to say what effects his resignation will have."
Officially, his resignation won't have much affect on Catholic hierarchy until after the conclave of the college of cardinals, possibly in the next month. Until then, Catholics in the Diocese of Raleigh and around the world will be praying special intercessory prayers thanking God for Benedict's life and ministry, said diocesan Bishop Burbidge.
"I was stunned," Burbidge said in a phone interview. "Our role now is being united in prayer and trusting in the Lord because he picks the pope."
Generally, local Catholics admired the pope's decision to bow out early. In a letter to an assembly of Cardinals in Rome, he wrote: "in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
Sister Rose McNamara, director of the UNCW Catholic Student Center, admired Benedict's move saying, "It's taken a lot of courage to do what he's doing. . .My hope is that we are at the point where we could have someone (as pope) from the developing nations because that's where the Catholic Church is growing. Even here in the United States, without our Latino population, the numbers in the Catholic Church would be diminished."
But not everyone agreed with Benedict's approach to the papacy.
"For conservative, very orthodox, Roman Catholics, Benedict XVI emerged as a hero, advocate and needed restorationist. For more progressive and liberal Roman Catholics, he became one who rolled back the curtains of modernity," wrote Shallotte Catholic Jean W. Pelletier in an email. "He viewed Vatican II as a continuation of previous church declarations with no renewed visions and thus became, not a reformer but a reclaimer, of Vatican I and Trent's pronouncements and teaching. In a way, he re-enlivened a decadent inquisition accenting negativity instead of a positive momentum. He is, however, a learned theologian, a holy man, and a world leader. My prayerful hope would be that our next pope will demand and achieve total collegiality, transparency, accountability, and inclusivity. May that individual set the stones of a new, lively, lovely, and inviting Church for all humanity."
As a Catholic author and Beliefnet correspondent covering the last conclave following the death of Pope John Paul II, Wilmington resident Paul Wilkes said the publicized goal of electing the next pope by Easter is possible, especially since no papal funeral is part of the process this time.
But just because most pope's die in office, and the last time the church dealt with a papal resignation was 600 years ago with Pope Gregory XII, doesn't mean pope's can't resign.
"Pope Gregory was forced to resign so this is really unprecedented. But there is a papal canon that allows for his resignation," Pasulka added. "It just reflects how the Catholic Church today can roll with the times. I don't think his resignation is going to detract, in any way for believers, that this is a divinely ordained appointment."
As for issues the next pope is facing, Burbidge believes it's new and creative ways of reaching the faithful worldwide. McNamara believes a new pope will have to tackle the issue of celebate clergy serving beside converted married Anglican priests. For Pasulka, the issue of female priests will be a major schism facing the Catholic church in the next 10 years.
"There's been a potential schism in the Catholic church since Vatican II in that there's been a push back from more traditionalists," Pasulka added. "And more than John Paul, Pope Benedict has addressed this and attempted to bring traditionalist Catholics back into the fold by changing the Mass to reflect the original Latin. He's trying to unify these two streams, and I honestly think that's how he's going to be remembered."
Burbidge will be reminded of the pope's personal impact on his own life each time he enters his Raleigh office.
"Outside of my office is a document signed personally by Pope Benedict assigning me as bishop of the Raleigh diocese so there's a personal connection," he said. "This is a noble thing he's doing."