By DON GLYNN
Niagara Gazette — The shock over Pope Benedict XVI's announcement that he would resign later this month had hardly subsided when the speculation about his successor erupted.
It had been nearly 600 years since a pope resigned so it was inevitable that Benedict's brief message would stun the world and stir concern about the future of the Roman Catholic Church.
Bishop Richard Malone, leader of the Buffalo Catholic Diocese, said he was totally surprised by the word from the vatican that Benedict planned to step down Feb. 28.
Area clergy, lay leaders, and many of the 630,000 Catholics in the eight-county diocese, shared the same reaction. They agreed that the pope's health was a major factor as evidenced by his frail appearance at recent events. Others wondered about the process for selecting his successor and who might be elected as the 266th pontiff.
Bishop Malone, who assumed his current post in May, said he also was surprised by the announcement Monday from the Vatican. The bishop said he doubted that even the cardinals in the U.S. had been informed in advance of the pontiff's plan to step down. Conceding that Benedict's physical condition may have declined in recent months, Malone said that the "pope still is sharp as a tack." The bishop added: "I ask all Catholics in the diocese to join me in prayer for the pope, giving thanks for his lifetime o dedicated, selfless service to the church."
Speaking at a morning news conference , Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, told reporters that he was as startled as anyone about the breaking news.
Pope Benedict, 85, has been generally perceived as a conservative on social and theological issues. While he was firmly opposed to tolerating homosexual acts, same-sex marriage acceptable - through public referendums - in eight countries during his eight-year reign. Also, Benedict has strongly objected to any plan that would permit women to be ordained to the priesthood.
The Rev. Michael P. Zuffoletto, pastor of St. Peter's Church, Lewiston, agreed that Benedict was conservative in his ways but he was striving to be progressive and to bring more unity to the church. The pastor said he became more aware of the pope's declining health as he watched him earlier in the month celebrating a Mass televised from St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
"I noticed how much he had aged in such a short period of time," Father Zuffoletto added.
Among those considered front-runners to succeed Benedict is Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada. If he was elected, he would be the first pope from North America and the first modern-day pope appointed from outside Europe.Other contenders are from Africa, Ghana and Nigeria.
Media reaction to the pope's pending departure ran the gamut from editorials praising him for his difficult decision to resign — due to poor health — to caustic opinion page columns blasting his weak leadership of the estimated 1.2 billion members of the church.