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FORT MILL --
Roman Catholics across York County were “stunned” to wake up Monday to news that Pope Benedict XVI will step down at the end of the month, but there likely will be little or no immediate effect on the area’s thousands of Catholic families.
Still, the news shocked even local clergy, who had no inkling that Benedict was going to abdicate. He said Monday morning he no longer has the strength to continue, becoming the first pope in about 600 years to abdicate.
York County is home to The Oratory, two Catholic churches in Rock Hill and one each in Fort Mill, York and Lake Wylie.
More than 40 people attended the noon Mass at The Oratory chapel Monday, and blurted, “What?” when the news was announced by the priest. Louise and Jack Clinton afterward called the announcement “shocking.”
At daily Mass Monday morning at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Fort Mill, Father Joe Pearce brought up the news and reaction from the faithful. Many of the dozens of parishioners in attendance stared at a picture of Benedict hanging in the sanctuary throughout the service.
Pearce asked the congregation to pray for Benedict and for the church, nation and world.
“The pope has determined that the church needs a new leader,” Pearce said, “and I commend him for making a mature decision in the best interest of all.”
Pearce prayed for the future of Benedict, 85, and the church, asking that God “allow for someone younger to take the reins.”
After Mass, Pearce said he understood the surprised reaction from Catholics.
“This hasn’t happened in about 600 years and all of a sudden it happened,” Pearce said. “People do want answers about what it means.”
St. Philip Neri has boomed in recent years, as Fort Mill has grown with thousands of transplanted people from the Northeast and Midwest. Other parishes in Lake Wylie and Indian Land also have seen an increase in membership, especially among retirees who have moved to the area.
St. Philip Neri parishioner Peggy Hagen offered up a prayer for Benedict during the portion of Mass when prayers of the people are voiced.
“Let us all pray for the courage of Pope Benedict and his successor,” she said.
After the service, Hagen said Catholics should not consider the action a resignation.
“The pope is abdicating, stepping aside really,” Hagen said. “He was secretary to the previous pope (John Paul II). He knows better than anyone what the duties are and whether he can perform those duties.”
Speculation will now center on whether a new pope might be chosen from South America, Africa or Asia, where hundreds of millions of Catholics live.
“That would be a good thing,” Hagen said.
It also would be a first.
JoAnn Brown was “plainly stunned and shocked,” by the pope’s decision, but she appreciates that it was done for reasons that might strengthen the church.
“This must have been the most difficult decision of his life, to step down,” Brown said.
Another St. Philip Neri worshipper, Beverly Schneider, used the word “saddened” as well as “very stunned,” to describe her emotional reaction to the decision.
“I am sad he is too ill to stay to the end, to continue to lead the church,” she said.
The pope is “the boss” of 1 billion Catholics worldwide in lay terms, said Father John Giuliani, provost of The Oratory, a Catholic brotherhood in Rock Hill that administrates area Catholic parishes.
“Certainly it was surprising, but it seems like it comes at a good time for him, when he can clearly make this decision and knows that he is slowing down,” Giuliani said. “People in the church will surely be talking about this, but I saw him do a baptism just a couple of weeks ago, and he had others assisting him.”
The pope is “pastor of the whole church,” the bishop of Rome and the top religious leader for all Catholics, Giuliani said. The pope gives direction and guidance to church members worldwide, and a successor now becomes the focus of Catholics.
“There will be much prayer about it, but the workings of the church will not be affected much, if any,” Giuliani said. “When Pope John Paul II – he was Polish – was elected, that was a big deal as he was not Italian.
“But the church will continue. It always does. The church always seems to pull through.”
Giuliani was close to Benedict six years ago at a service at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
“He was in a Jeep, and the Jeep rolled right up the steps and he got out,” Giuliani said. “But in recent days he gets around on a cart. He must believe that it is the right time to leave.”
Benedict is known for his kind heart and considerate ways, Giuliani said.
At St. Anne Catholic Church in Rock Hill, Deacon Jim Hyland said he was “still digesting the stunning news” that the pope is leaving by resignation.
Catholics will look toward the future, he said, and the pope made a “deliberate” decision to step aside while having all his “faculties” in place.
“In just my lifetime I have seen six popes,” Hyland said. “Changes do come and people will talk about it and what it could mean, but the church will move forward deliberately, too.”
The announcement will not affect Mass times, including Wednesday, Giuliani said. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season for Catholics and other denominations, and most parishes have services to mark the event.