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No one had illusions that Pope Benedict XVI was getting younger, but few Catholics expected the aging pontiff to announce his resignation Monday – just two days before the start of the Lenten holy season.

Western New Yorkers expressed a mix of surprise, sadness, optimism and even a bit of confusion over Benedict’s stunning announcement that he no longer had the physical strength necessary to lead the Roman Catholic faithful and will step down Feb. 28.

“I’ve never heard of a pope resigning,” said Michael Godzala, of Cheektowaga, who learned of the pope’s plans following a morning Mass in St. Gabriel Church in Elma.

Indeed, no previous pope in nearly 600 years has voluntarily resigned the office.

The Rev. Martin X. Moleski, a Jesuit priest and professor of religious studies at Canisius College, called the pope’s decision courageous and generous – and potentially benefiting the church for many years to follow.

“It goes so against the grain of recent example,” Moleski said. “This opens the door for subsequent popes. It makes it possible for them to retire at the top of their game, and that can lead to better leadership of the church.”

Area Catholics generally applauded the pope’s decision. Some of them recalled watching the previous pontiff, John Paul II, live out his final days severely infirm and incapable of performing his papal duties.

“This sets a good precedent that we don’t have to have long, drawn-out twilights,” said Michael Toner, an Amherst Catholic.

Godzala said the pope apparently did what his conscience told him was right.

“I don’t know what the circumstances are,” he said. “If he steps down and says, ‘You know I’d rather have a younger, more enthusiastic person take over’ and he gives his blessing. … If that’s what he feels is in his heart, what can I say?”

Bishop Richard J. Malone praised Benedict’s humility in making a decision that was in the best interests of the church.

“This is clearly due to his health,” Malone said. “His mind is as sharp as a tack.”

Malone, whom Benedict appointed as bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo last May, said this pontiff will go down in history as a brilliant scholar who was never out of touch with how the world was evolving.

“Pope Benedict really had his finger on the pulse of the culture,” Malone said.

At the same time, the bishop added, “I think of Pope Benedict as a man who honored and fostered church tradition.”

Mary Roaldi, of Kenmore, described Benedict as a great teacher of the faith and said she was saddened he is stepping down.

“He was helping us to wake up and see how we are destroying ourselves by thinking that we are independent and don’t need God,” Roaldi said.

But other Catholics criticized Benedict for making overtures to dissident conservatives, while cracking down on liberal thinking within the church.

Under Benedict, the Vatican investigated seminaries in an effort to weed out gay candidates for the priesthood and conducted a controversial “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that’s been heavily criticized by supporters of Catholic sisters.

Last fall, the Vatican dismissed Roy Bourgeois from the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, where he had served as a priest for more than 40 years. Bourgeois refused to recant his longtime advocacy for women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. He will be in Buffalo next week as part of a tour of upstate New York cities to discuss his dismissal from the priesthood.

“There’s been so many cases where people of good will have followed their consciences, and Benedict and people he’s appointed have come after them,” said Toner, who heads a local branch of Call to Action, a Catholic reform group. “All he did was talk about women’s ordination. He didn’t hurt any children. And he gets excommunicated and thrown out.”

“We’re also seeing that with the nuns, and we’re seeing that with theologians,” added Toner. “Shouldn’t we be acting more out of love than fear within the church?”

Judy Capodicasa, of Buffalo, said the next pope needs to “take an honest look at church history” and revisit its limitations on women.

“The insistence that women can’t be priests and don’t even talk about it – that’s ridiculous,” Capodicasa said.

But Roaldi said women’s ordination is a settled issue in the church.

“Our society is falling apart. Why are we still talking about this?” she said.

And too many nuns were out of step with official church doctrine, she added, forcing the Vatican to act.

“When the world looks at them and they’re saying one thing and the Vatican says another, it causes great confusion,” she said. “The Vatican over and over and over gave the women religious a second chance.”

Benedict also faced criticism for his handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, with some Catholics even urging him to resign back in 2010 amid reports in the New York Times and German media that linked him to a cover-up of the scandal during his tenure as an archbishop in Munich and later as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Pope John Paul II.

But Malone said Benedict deserves credit for requiring bishops around the world to establish and implement policies to remove abusive priests.

Benedict’s departure during the middle of Lent leaves open the possibility that a new pope could be in place by Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

Could the Lenten season – with its focus on prayer, repentance and change – have something to do with the timing of Benedict’s announcement?

Malone said it’s possible the pope wanted the cardinals to make a decision on his successor during Lent.

“That kind of symbolism might be something he had in mind, but there’s all kinds of things we still don’t know,” said the Rev. Joseph G. Hubbert, associate professor of religious studies at Niagara University.

Even if the timing was motivated primarily by a change in Benedict’s health, all eyes will be focused on the Catholic Church for weeks to come, during the height of the Christian calendar, Moleski said.

“Everybody’s going to be thinking about the church and what kind of pope has he been and what kind of pope can we hope for,” he said.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com