JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday morning that he would resign at the end of the month, concluding eight years of service as head of the Roman Catholic Church.
The announcement came as a seismic shift in tradition and sent shock waves throughout the Catholic community worldwide, including in Northeast Arkansas.
"I was actually very saddened from the initial response, and I know of didn't believe it," said Sister Mary Clare Bezner, who serves as the vocation directress for the Olivetan Benedictine Sisters. "I thought there was a bad rumor."
The rumor, however, proved to be true.
Sister Mary Clare learned over breakfast Monday morning at the Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro that Pope Benedict would become the first pontiff to resign in almost six centuries.
"It's not the norm," Sister Mary Clare said, "but I do see his wisdom. I can see that it could be very appropriate for him."
Pope Benedict, now 85, hinted during his announcement Monday that his advanced age and declining health have influenced his decision to step aside.
The Vatican, however, has never released any information that would make it appear that the pope has any serious medical conditions.
Dr. Paul Bube, a professor of religion at Lyon College, says this decision could carry implications for the future of the church.
"The pope is now, I think, making it possible for folks when they feel like they are too ill or otherwise incapable of continuing on," he said, "to be able to resign at an earlier age in order to provide for good succession to the church."
Who will ultimately succeed Pope Benedict will prove most "fascinating," according to Dr. Bube.
He says right now, there appears to be no clear choice.
"I think it opens up a lot of possibilities for the church," he said. "I think it would be exciting to see that a Latin American or an African pope comes out of this."
Those continents, he says, represent areas where Catholicism is growing the fastest.
The College of Cardinals will now have to meet in conclave and choose Pope Benedict's successor, which is a process that Sister Mary Clare can only pray goes smoothly.
"For 2,000 years, it's been going on this way," she said, "so I have no worries in that."
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of Little Rock issued a statement Monday, echoing those sentiments.
Taylor wrote, "Our next pope has big shoes to fill as did Pope Benedict when he succeeded Pope John Paul II. Let us pray for the College of Cardinals, that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they will choose for us a worthy successor well equipped to address the complex challenges we face in the world today."