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Locals react to the retirement of 'gracious, pastoral' Pope Benedict XVI

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12 2013 12:15 p.m. MST

Pope Benedict XVI

L'Osservatore Romano, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — Although he has only had a few, brief interactions with Pope Benedict XVI, the Most Rev. John C. Wester, Bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, views the 85-year-old pontiff in very warm, personal terms.

“Every time I have been in his presence he has been so gracious,” Bishop Wester said Monday afternoon during a news conference in the Diocese Pastoral Center. “I have found him to be a very kind, very gentle, very pastoral man.”

So when he heard the startling news that the pope has decided to resign the papacy effective Feb. 28, his first reaction was instinctive and personal.

“I thought, ‘No, not now. Too soon,’” Bishop Wester told a handful of reporters as the press conference ended. “I will miss him as a leader.”

Bishop Wester said he believes the membership of the Diocese of Salt Lake City feels similarly affectionate feelings for the soon-to-be-retired pope.

“My impression is that local Catholics hold him in great esteem,” said Bishop Wester, who has presided over the Utah diocese ever since he was appointed to that position in early 2007 by Pope Benedict. “They have a fondness for him. They see him as a revered leader.”

In a special letter to Utah Catholics, Bishop Wester called for them to show their appreciation and respect during a day of prayer Sunday, Feb. 24, “for our Holy Father and his intentions, as we pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the church in the days ahead.”

Two local church leaders – the Rt. Rev. Scott B. Hayashi, Episcopal Bishop of Utah, and the Rev. Fr. Elias Koucos of the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church – said they will be joining their Catholic brothers and sisters in prayer during what Bishop Hayashi called “a sensitive time for the Roman Catholic Church.”

“I offer my prayers for them as they face this change and the election of their next pope,” said Bishop Hayashi.

Rev. Koucos added that “Pope Benedict has left a legacy not only in the Roman Catholic Church but universally throughout all Christianity and with all faith traditions and the world as a whole."

“I extend my prayers and wishes for his continued health and well-being and his continued contribution to his church and humanity through his concern as a theologian and humanitarian," Rev. Koucos said.

Bishop Hayashi characterized as brave Pope Benedict’s decision to step down because “he no longer has the strength to fulfill his role as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.” Bishop Wester agreed — "It is humility and prudence in evidence here," he said — and suggested that we probably should have seen it coming.

“In retrospect, I think he gave us a number of hints through the years that he might do this,” Bishop Wester said during the Monday press conference. “He reminded us that it is in the structure of the church for this to happen, part of the canon law of the church – Canon 332, Paragraph 2. He always told us that if his health failed him that this would be an option that he would certainly consider.”

As far as Bishop Wester is concerned, “this is the act of a humble man, a gracious man whose only thought is to serve the church."

“Instead of clinging to power, he voluntarily relinquishes it in the service of the church that he has guided so well, placing it into the hands of God’s loving providence,” Bishop Wester said in a prepared statement.

Although he called Monday’s announcement “very unexpected,” Bishop Wester acknowledged that when he saw the pope last April “he looked tired.”

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