With Catholics across the globe taken aback amid the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years, local church officials said Monday that they might meet Pope Benedict XVI's successor within months of his election.
Monday's announcement that Benedict will resign for health reasons on Feb. 28 shocked Roman Catholic clergy. Popes typically work until their deaths, with the last resignation - that of Gregory XII in 1415 - caused by a religious schism.
"When I first heard, I thought something was coming across that he died," said Monsignor Anthony Little of St. Patrick Church in Newry.
Bishop Mark L. Bartchak of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown greets Pope Benedict XVI during Bartchak’s visit to Rome in September 2011, when he participated in a conference for newly ordained bishops from around the world.
Benedict, 85, told church cardinals that his advanced age has rendered him unable to carry out his duties as head of the Roman Catholic Church and its more than a billion adherents.
"I think - and this is just speculation - he saw the declining years of [Pope] John Paul II, and in his case said, 'Maybe that's not the best thing for the church,'" Little said.
With the College of Cardinals likely to elect a new pope before Easter, or March 31, a delegation of Altoona-Johnstown Diocese officials could meet the future pope during a scheduled summer trip to Italy, diocese spokesman Tony DeGol said Monday.
A pilgrimage, which will include local Bishop Mark L. Bartchak, is set to go to Castel Gandolfi, the pope's summer home, in July, DeGol said.
"The pilgrimage is still set to continue," he said. "The bishop may well meet the new pope as early as July."
In a written statement, Bartchak praised Benedict's intellect and recalled his two meetings with the outgoing pontiff.
"During both visits [in 2011], Bishop Mark found Pope Benedict to be very engaged, attentive and focused," a diocese press release said.
Unlike past papal elections, which required a mourning period following the previous pontiff's death, the next pope's election could get under way quickly after Benedict steps down, DeGol said.
DeGol and Little said the coming papal transition will have little immediate effect on rank-and-file Catholics, who are set to begin the Lenten season this week with Ash Wednesday. The pope's decision may be reflected in holiday sermons this weekend, Little said.
"The initial surprise probably comes right down to the parish level," Little said. "Besides God, the pope and maybe two other persons, nobody saw this coming."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.