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'Nobody expected this'

The Rev. Benjamin Tapia was awoken by a phone call at 4 in the morning Monday with news that would shock his church and the world: Pope Benedict XVI was resigning, something the Catholic Church hadn't seen since the 15th century.

"Nobody expected this," said Tapia, parochial vicar at Medford's Sacred Heart Catholic Church. "He's only the fifth pope in history to resign and the others were for political reasons. He is opening a door in history and recognizing that a certain age comes with certain limitations."

Benedict's abdication was a big shock to him personally, said Tapia, who was alerted by an old college friend who called him from Rome.

"He is one of the greatest minds of the 21st century," he said. "He had great pastoral skills to do the job — starting at age 77."

Tapia lauded Benedict for his scholarship and teachings and for his ecumenical work in creating dialogue between the faiths, helping reconcile and heal the "huge wounds" between religions.

Tapia said Benedict "showed great courage and humility," both by continuing his work in many lands despite ailing health and by voluntarily stepping down as supreme pontiff of the see of St. Peter, the first pope to do so in 600 years.

The cardinals have 20 days after the office is vacated on Feb. 28 to choose a new pope, a power that so far has been given only to Europeans. If they opted for a South American or even a non-European, "it would definitely be a renewal ... it would open new frontiers," Tapia said. Most popes have been Italian and the bishop of Rome, he said.

"It would be very interesting to see a new pope who comes from the majority of Catholics, who are Spanish speakers," said Tapia, who is a native of Mexico.

The decision of the cardinals, however, is not based on politics or what would be popular, Tapia said. They are "guided by the Holy Spirit for what supports the church and the world. ... It's the dream of every Catholic to find that balance in the center."

The news of Benedict's announcement quickly reverberated around the world. A group of parishioners working on a project at Sacred Heart Monday evening expressed shock, but also said they were confident the papacy would continue on without much disruption.

"The moment I heard the news, I didn't understand what the decision meant," said Francisco Estrada of Medford. "His health was not good. He had to make that sacrifice. It wasn't only his decision. He had to be truthful and do the right thing for the future."

Estrada said the pope's resignation would not change people's faith in God.

"We pray to God that he will guide us the right way so we can get to him," he said. "If the pope feels he can't stay longer, then it's the right way to do it, to be truthful. If we are close to God, we will all do the right thing. It's God that will guide the pope."

Calls to priests in Ashland, Central Point and Shady Cove for comment Monday were not immediately returned.

The decline in Benedict's health had been evident in recent months, as he no longer walks freely but uses a small vehicle to move among crowds.

"John Paul II showed suffering through a long illness and embraced the cross of Christ," said Tapia. "Pope Benedict showed humbleness and I am sure he's doing it (resigning) out of love of the church."

Benedict appointed many conservative cardinals, indicating the next pope might be conservative. But the liberal-conservative labels don't accurately describe deliberations over the next pope, said Tapia.

What matters to the College of Cardinals is, "does he follow the teachings of the church and of Christ?" Tapia said.

As Benedict is considered conservative, Tapia said "it would be interesting to see a person from the left."

"But I'd rather have someone in the center."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

The Rev. Benjamin Tapia of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Medford received an early morning phone call Monday from a friend in Rome saying the pope was stepping down. - Bob Pennell