RIO DE JANEIRO — From the parishes of Poland to the churches of Chile, Roman Catholics around the world were stunned Monday at the first papal resignation in six centuries, even as many prayed for a new charismatic pontiff who could lead the church into a new era after decades of disaffection and mistrust.
Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, Canada, echoed the sentiments of many of the faithful Monday when he said, “It was quite a shock. I was like, ‘The pope has resigned?’”
“We received the news with great regret and much surprise,” said Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who was discussed as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II when he died in 2005. “This is something completely new for the Catholic Church though it was discussed during the illness of Pope John Paul II. I didn’t know Pope Benedict XVI would make this decision, but the last time I talked to him he seemed physically tired.”
Alis Ramirez, an ice cream seller headed to church in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, insisted, “He can’t quit like that. This can’t be.”
But a few didn’t consider it bad news at all.
“I don’t care or feel sorry that that the Pope resigned because he never entered my heart like John Paul II did,” said Rosita Mejia, who sells religious icons outside La Merced church in downtown Santiago, Chile. “In fact, it’s good that he leaves. He’s done his job and it’s time for him to rest. In five years outside this church, only one person asked me for a Benedict stamp, while hundreds asked for John Paul’s stamp.”
Inside, Pedro Prado mopped the shiny wooden floor of La Merced, where he has been the sexton for more than 25 years.
“It’s not normal for the pope to resign. I just hope health is the real reason. There were a lot of issues coming out with the pope’s butler papers,” said Prado, referring to the scandal over a former butler stealing documents from the papal apartment.
The pope’s announcement that he will step aside on Feb. 28 brought reawakened calls for a more energetic successor, perhaps from Africa or Latin America — long considered a bulwark against continued losses in church membership in Europe and the United States. While the church has been battered by growing secularism and sex abuse scandals in the northern hemisphere, the number of believers is growing in Africa, as well as Latin America.
“Europe today is going through a period of cultural tiredness, exhaustion, which is reflected in the way Christianity is lived,” said Bishop Antonio Marto, of Fatima in central Portugal. “You don’t see that in Africa or Latin America where there is a freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith.”
In Latin America, home to about 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, believers hoped the cardinals who select Benedict’s successor will pay close attention to candidates from their region.
“I think it’s time to name a pope from Latin America,” 65-year-old homemaker Josefa Sanchez said at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Santa Tecla, a city on the outskirts of El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador. “Really, they should name one of ours, they’ve only named Europeans until now.”
In Brazil, Zulma Alves, a cook who was lighting candles in front of a Rio de Janeiro church that was closed for Carnival, said: “We need someone young who can bring back the dynamism to the church.”
But Ferya Caicedo, of Pradera, Colombia, said in the end “It doesn’t matter who it is: be it a Latino, European or Asian.”
“This world is crazy, with lots of violence, lots of corruption,” she said. “We are killing one another for crumbs and we need God’s messenger, whoever it may be, to get us out of this situation because we are lost.”
African Catholics also expressed hope for a leader from their midst.
Some 176 million people in Africa are Catholic, roughly a third of all Christians across the continent, according to a December 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in Europe, the traditional stronghold of the church, has dropped in recent years.
The African nation with the biggest Christian population, Nigeria, has some 20 million practicing Catholics. In Lagos, its largest city, trader Chukwuma Awaegwu put his feelings simply Monday: “If I had my way an African should be the next pope, or someone from Nigeria.”
“It’s true; they brought the religion to us, but we have come of age,” he said. “In America, now we have a black president. So let’s just feel the impact of a black pope.”
Elaine Herald, manager at St. Theresa of the Infant Jesus Parish in New Cumberland, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, welcomed the speculation about a progressive pope, perhaps a black person.
“We’re kind of excited at the (prospect) of a pope that our Catholics seem to be screaming for,” Herald said.
Others praised Benedict precisely for his defense of traditional values.
“He has always been a defender of the faith against women in the clergy, against Planned Parenthood, against abortion. He’s been a defender of the faith against heresies in the church,” said Eric Husseini, a member of the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, after attending morning Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Hagerstown, Md.
Many Catholics, however, said they admired Benedict for his bravery and modesty in deciding to step aside.
The resignation was an act of deference to the greater good by a man “demonstrating his humanity,” said Father Luis Rivero, Archdiocesan director of campus ministry for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami.
“There are times that only we know that we have to let go. And sometimes people may see that as a failure, but it’s honorable when someone reaches their point they have to let go because they can’t do this effectively anymore.”