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.”
“I believe it’s clear that anyone in a position like the pope today – any world leader, any head of state – faces a job that is more complex than it has ever been,” Bishop Wester said. “The papacy has grown and been complicated by technology and the media. It is very demanding, and it takes a lot of energy to be at the top of your game for all the things that come up. There’s a lot of stress that comes along with that. It is much different than it was in years gone by, no doubt about it.”
Pope Benedict’s tenure has also been complicated by scandals of sexual abuse of children among Catholic clergy. But Bishop Wester believes “the pope did a lot to help us deal with these issues squarely.”
“He worked very hard in this painful area,” the bishop said. “I think he accomplished a lot in that regard. As contentious as these issues have been, I think he will be remembered as someone who tried very hard to bring unity to the church and to the world.”
Primarily, Bishop Wester said, Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered as “a pope who really cared about people.”
“He spoke of a God who is a God of love and compassion and reconciliation,” Bishop Wester said. “This was very important and dear to him. He will also be remembered as a pope who spoke to the foundational importance of truth in our lives. This was very important to him.”
Beloved though the pope may be, however, Bishop Wester has no concern for the future of the Catholic Church.
“Electing a new pope is something that happens normally in the church,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for a long time. It is not unnerving. People are not startled by this.”
Certainly not the people at Mancuso’s Religious Goods, Gifts & Books on State Street in Salt Lake City. Carmen Mancuso, who has run the shop that specializes in Catholic-oriented religious merchandise for 23 years, said that although Pope Benedict has “done a great job,” shifting loyalty from one pope to the next “is something we just take in stride.”
“How long has the church been around?” he asked rhetorically. “A couple of thousand years? It’s not exactly earth-shattering.”
News reporters, he observed, make a much bigger deal out of it than do rank-and-file Catholics.
His colleague at Mancuso’s, Rich Ruiz, said he has no idea who the next pope will be — a position he shares with Bishop Wester — but he said that “with all the goings-on at the Vatican, I think they will be guided to make the right choice in the end.”