PITTSFIELD -- Surprised and saddened by Pope Benedict XVI's decision to leave the papacy, local Catholic clergy and lay people also view his decision as a courageous and selfless act for the benefit of the Roman Catholic Church.
The pope's announcement Monday that he would officially leave the Vatican on Feb. 28 -- two weeks into the Lenten season -- quickly spread through Catholic parishes in the Berkshires.
The Rev. Geoffrey Deeker, priest in residence at St. Joseph's Church in Pittsfield, asked parishioners during the noon Mass on Monday to remember Pope Benedict in their prayers and wish him good health.
The 85-year-old pontiff cited failing health as the reason for his abdication, saying he no longer had the physical strength to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
While surprised by the news, St. Joseph's pastor, Mgsr. Michael Shershanovich, feels Benedict is thinking with a "courageous mind."
"The man was at Pope John Paul II's bedside before he died and saw what suffering he went through," said Shershanovich. "He doesn't want to put the church through that again."
It was a "very wise and selfless act," said Mary, a St. Joseph parishioner who declined to give her last name after Monday's Mass.
The Benedict retirement allows the Vatican to hold a conclave of the College of Cardinals before Easter to elect a new pope, since the traditional nine days of mourning that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed. The conclave could gather as early as the second week in March.
The timing of Benedict's announcement was significant: Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday, the most solemn period on the church's calendar that culminates with Holy Week and Easter on March 31.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield Bishop Timothy McDonnell is confident a new pope will be elected before Easter. While McDonnell felt the new pope could come from Africa, where Catholicism has been growing in recent years, he stopped short of making any predictions on a successor.
"There will be lots of speculation and lots of talk in the days ahead ... but I'll leave that to the Cardinals," he said during his Monday afternoon press conference in Springfield.
Lisa Edson, of Cummington, was unfazed by the pending search for the next pope.
"I'm sure [the Cardinals] will find a very good replacement," she said. "I'm not worried."
Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected April 19, 2005. At the time of his election, Benedict was a popular choice within the college of 115 cardinals, who chose him as a man who shared -- and at times went beyond -- the conservative theology of his predecessor and mentor, John Paul II, and seemed ready to take over the job after serving beside him for more than two decades.
The church's 265th pope, Benedict was the first German to hold the title in half a millennium. At 78, he was also the oldest new pope since 1730.
While Benedict lacked the charisma of John Paul, he was a great teacher -- well-versed in the history and faith of Catholicism, according to the Rev. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, provincial superior of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge.
"He has a special gift of a teacher," said Chwalek, who met Benedict in 2008. "He has absolute humility and is a very gentle person."
Associated Press material was used in this report.