The Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, urged area Catholics on Monday to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as the church embarks on choosing a new pope.
Still fresh from mourning the death of their former bishop, the Rev. John M. D’Arcy, whose funeral was Friday, local Catholics awoke to news of another loss – that Pope Benedict XVI would resign at the end of the month.
The pontiff, who has served since 2005, cited physical infirmity and advanced age. He is 85.
“I think the (immediate) effect on our people was one of surprise. I was very surprised,” said Rhoades. “But the faith of our people is strong,” he said. “I think there is always hope, the strong hope, that we have of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, especially in times like this.”
Rhoades said he had met Benedict “five or six times,” first in 1995 when he was named bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg in Pennsylvania, and the last in 2012, when he and the late Bishop D’Arcy traveled to Rome with other Indiana bishops for an ad limina visit – a formal consultation that is required periodically.
“I noticed a year ago that he did look a little bit tired,” Rhoades said of the pope.
He said the pontiff keeps an exhausting schedule of Masses, public and private audiences, travel and correspondence.
However, Rhoades said, he mostly was impressed by the pontiff’s gentleness while in his presence.
“He’s a very gentle man, very soft spoken, very warm, very personable, very kind,” Rhoades said. “What I found most interesting is he asked a lot of questions about the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. To see his interest and concern was very good.”
Other religious leaders in Fort Wayne expressed admiration for Pope Benedict, who was chosen after the death of the popular, world-traveling Polish-born Pope John Paul II.
Rick Hawks, pastor of The Chapel, an evangelical Protestant megachurch in Fort Wayne, said Pope Benedict has provided the church a steady hand.
“If I were to pick someone I would not like to follow, it would have been Pope John Paul II. He had my vote for the man of the century,” he said. “But Benedict came into church leadership and gave the church a lot of stability at a time when it needed it.”
The Rev. Roger Reece, executive pastor of Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, said he believes the pope made the right choice.
“If the pope, through prayer with God, realizes this (resignation) is the best thing, who could not admire that?” he said.
Still, what a retired pope’s role will be is new territory for the modern church, Rhoades said.
“With his great intellect, I wouldn’t be surprised if he would continue more writing,” he added, calling Benedict a “magnificent” writer whose weekly missives he always reads, eager for their teachings.
“I’m going to miss those,” he said.
Rhoades asked that people make the well-being of the pope and the cardinals “a very special intention in their prayers” in the upcoming penitential season of Lent, which begins Wednesday.
“I trust the Holy Father’s discernment, that he knew what’s best for the church.”