SOUTH PORTLAND – Monsignor Michael Henchal stood at the front of St. John the Evangelist Church and addressed the small group of Catholic parishioners who had gathered Monday for noon Mass.

Before he read from the Gospel of Mark and prepared the Eucharist, Henchal used the news of the day to shape his remarks. His words were about sickness and the physical breakdown that eventually affects everyone.

The news, of course, was the announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will step down at the end of this month because of failing health.

After the Mass, Henchal said he was surprised when he heard the 85-year-old pope’s announcement, but not by the decision itself.

“I always saw him as an interim figure, someone to give some breathing room after the long papacy of (Pope) John Paul II,” Henchal said. “And he watched as Pope John Paul lost his own vision and focus after an extended period of sickness. I don’t think he wanted to go through that.”

In a prepared statement Monday, Bishop Richard Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland described a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in November 2011. Even then, Malone said, the pontiff appeared frail.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, Maine is the least religious state. But Catholics still make up the largest bloc of Mainers who consider themselves religious. As of last year, about 187,000 Maine residents identified themselves as Catholic.

As the head of the Catholic Church, the pope is the spiritual leader of 1 billion Catholics worldwide. His public statements and his writings are a continued source of faith.

In his eight years as pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI has overseen the church through years of tumult over sexual-abuse and financial scandals, while enforcing more conservative doctrine.

Shirley Estabrooks, 68, who attended Monday’s Mass at St. John the Evangelist, said she was shocked by the news. “It’s significant because we need a leader,” she said.

Asked what she would like to see in the next pope, Estabrooks said he should be someone who can connect with younger Catholics and strengthen the next generation of the faithful.

Sister Dorina Chasse, who also attended the noon Mass, agreed that the next pope should be a younger man who can be a bridge between the present and the future. She also said he should “be somewhere in the middle: not too conservative but not too progressive.”

Pope Benedict XVI is considered a conservative leader, even more so than Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. He has been criticized by some theologians for reinforcing traditional principles while society has become more progressive.

Monsignor Henchal said he doesn’t like to make a habit of predicting who the next pope might be because he has always been wrong.

“I’ve taken my name out of the running,” he joked.

But Henchal agreed with parishioners that the next Catholic leader is likely to be someone younger, with more vitality and charisma than Pope Benedict XVI, perhaps someone like John Paul II.

William Slavick, a retired University of Southern Maine professor who is a human rights activist and a lifelong Catholic, said he has been hoping for years that Pope Benedict XVI would resign.

Slavick said the pope and his predecessor failed to fully acknowledge the sex abuse involving the clergy, but more than that, they failed to modernize the church.

“They never came to terms with the modern world. We need leadership that respects the Second Vatican Council, which emphasized hope, collaboration and engagement with the world,” he said, referring to the reforms laid out in the 1960s to help modernize the church.

Slavick said he’s not hopeful that the next leader will be an improvement.

“(Pope Benedict) has replaced most of the cardinals who were outspoken,” he said, referring to the group of church leaders who will elect the next pope.

Daniel Sheridan, a theology professor at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, said Pope Benedict XVI talked long before he was elected about the possibility of a papal resignation.

“I have no doubt he planned this,” Sheridan said. “The resignation likely will be his legacy.”

Sheridan disagreed with Slavick about a lack of progress since the Second Vatican Council.

“Some things have not been implemented, perhaps,” he said. “I think the North American perspective on this might be narrow. If you asked Catholic leaders in Africa and South America, they might feel different.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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