By John Burton
RED BANK – The decision this week by Pope Benedict XVI to tender his resignation had those exiting St. James Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday reacting with surprise and a variety of opinions on his tenure and legacy.
“It did take me by surprise,” said Barbara Zarrillo of Manalapan. “If his health is failing, it’s certainly understandable,” that he would be the first pope in 600 years to step down.
Zarrillo hopes the College of Cardinals “can find someone who’s qualified” to assume the role as the church’s spiritual leader. Overall, she said, “I don’t think it’ll be a great disturbance to the Vatican or the Catholic nation.”
Pope Benedict, in her estimation, is “very conservative” in terms of the church’s orthodoxy and has been “trying to keep the Catholic beliefs on the straight and narrow,” she said.
Zarrillo noted that he also has embraced modern technology, keeping his papacy relevant. “He was the first pope to go viral, with tweeting. It’s a sign of the times.”
Most interviewed spoke of Benedict’s conservatism on church matters, saying they were in agreement with that direction and hoped Benedict’s successor would continue.
That was obvious to Rumson resident Mark Conley. “If they’re here in the church, they believe what he believes and in the teachings,” Conley observed.
The Catholic faith is about “rites, rituals and traditions,” he said. “He’s been a traditional pope, following the truths of the Catholic Church,” which have remained constant for 2,000 years.
“I believe he’s stayed with the traditions that I’ve always been taught,” Conley said. “Whether it’s been popular or unpopular, he’s stayed with the traditions.”
Muriel DeFazio, Red Bank, applauded Benedict’s conservative stances, as well as his decision to step aside, if he feels he’s unable to continue in his work. DeFazio, 89, said the church has changed considerably over the course of her life – and not necessarily for the better. “Let’s face it, the church is slowly going downhill,” she said. “It’s not what it use to be.”
Andrew Obosky, also from Red Bank, doesn’t think there has been any one thing that will be remembered as Benedict’s legacy during the course of his eight-year tenure. He conceded the pope doesn’t have the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II, but said the reinforcement of traditional Catholic teachings – Obosky didn’t want to use the word “conservative” – will hopefully continue.
“What you need is an anchor, a bastion of truth,” in a pope, upholding the two-millennia tradition. “I’m thankful for that,” he said.
“I think he’ll be loved and appreciated as time goes by,” said Neil Fitzpatrick, a Matawan resident who is St. James’ music director.
Fitzpatrick sees Benedict as a great theologian and thinker. And, while many would have liked to see the Roman Catholic Church take more progressive steps and changes, Fitzpatrick said that really isn’t the role for the pope. “You can’t change doctrine.’’ The pope is meant to reinforce and uphold it, he said.
Fitzpatrick traveled to Rome about two years ago and attended a papal Mass at the Vatican. It lasted for about three hours; and, while Benedict moved quite slowly while serving Mass, Fitzpatrick was amazed he held up as well as he did.
“I think he’s shown great humility and courage by stepping down,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fred Link of Middletown said the pope “certainly won’t have the legacy” of his predecessor. “Intellectually he did a lot,” through his writings and public pronouncements, which will be his legacy, Link said.
“It sure took me by surprise,” Link added. “I didn’t think it was an option. I thought you were there until you died.”