Although the news earlier today that Pope Benedict XVI plans to resign this month took many religious leaders and local parishioners by surprise, many Catholics in New Providence support the pontiff's unprecedented decision, while acknowledging that this is "uncharted territory" for the Church.
On Monday morning, the Vatican announced that the 85-year-old pope will be resigning by the end of February because of his inability to fulfill the duties of his office. Pope Benedict said in a statement that his strength "has deteriorated" in the last few months, according to a CNN report.
This will be the first time in at least 600 years that a pope has resigned, rather than die, in office. It will also be the first time since the Middle Ages that there are two living popes within the Catholic Church. Typically, when a pope is selected, he serves in that role until death. Pope Benedict will vacate his post as head of the church on Feb. 28, at 8 p.m.
The news - which shocked many local churchgoers and religious officials - comes just weeks before Lent and Holy Week, the period of time leading up to Easter Sunday, which this year, falls on March 31.
Father Bill Mahon, pastor of Our Lady of Peace in New Providence, said Pope Benedict's resignation has pushed the Church into "uncharted territory."
"We have not been through this in the Church. I think it's caught everyone by surprise," the pastor said Monday, adding that he believes the pontiff did not come to his decision lightly. "I'm sure he has thought long and hard and prayed extensively about his."
The next step for the Vatican will involve the selection of a new pope by the College of Cardinals, who will meet in conclave to make their selection. Typically, a period of mourning following a pope's death precedes the conclave, but in this case, the cardinals can begin the process sooner, according to local religious leaders. Father Mahon believes the conclave could take place in mid-March. He believes it's possible that the cardinals will be swift with their selection of a new pope.
"We have to wait and see what the Holy Spririt wants the Catholic Church to do," he said.