SALT LAKE CITY — The Catholic bishop for Salt Lake City, like Catholic leaders around the world, had no idea Pope Benedict XVI was planning to resign.
"I didn't have any inkling that this was in the offing," The Most Reverend John C. Wester, bishop of the Salt Lake Diocese, told KSL Monday morning.
He saw Pope Benedict on a visit to Rome last April. It is the role of every bishop in the Catholic church to meet with the pontiff every five years.
Bishop Wester said there were signs of the Pope's frail health at that time. He said typically the Pope would meet with each bishop one on one, and then there would be other activities, such as mass, as a group.
"Pope Benedict XVI had begun the practice of meeting with all the bishops at once. It was a good idea, really. I thought it worked out well. But it was an indication that he didn't have the stamina to be able to meet one on one," Bishop Wester explained.
"The Holy Father did look to me to be tired, and I could tell his health was not the best. So I'm not surprised in that sense," Bishop Wester said of the Pope's resignation announcement.
The Holy Father did look to me to be tired, and I could tell his health was not the best. So I'm not surprised in that sense.
"He's a wonderful man. He's a very prudent man, as well. He wants to serve the church and I know that's his first priority. He obviously has come to the conclusion that he can no longer do that in a way that he thinks is necessary," he said.
"I think his decision is based on prudence and love of the church and love of God's people," Bishop Wester continued. "He wants what's best for them. So my heart goes out to him. I know this is probably a very difficult decision to make. I'm praying for him, that God will give him all the graces he needs at this time in his life."
Catholics showing up for Mass at Cathedral of the Madeleine in downtown Salt Lake City Monday morning had not yet heard of the Pope's resignation.
During morning mass, Monsignor Joseph Mayo talked of Pope Benedict's decision, encouraging the faithful to pray for him.
Parishioners headed into the Cathedral of the Madeline, were stunned to hear that the Pope is stepping down.
"Wow, that's making history. That's making a statement," said one worshiper.
Speculation of a successor will go on for weeks, but University of Utah professor emeritus and Catholic scholar Glenn Olsen said it will not be an American — the country is too much of a superpower. The new pope could come from a Third World country with a large Catholic population.
SALT LAKE CITY — Only four previous popes have resigned. The last was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 during the Great Schism when several men claimed the position. But it is Pope Celestine V who has a connection. He was an Italian monk who was elected in 1294 and only served 4 months, resigning because of the overwhelming responsibilities for a man who lived the life of a hermit. In 2009, an earthquake destroyed the church in Aquila, the site of his tomb, though it was left intact. Pope Benedict visited and prayed there proclaiming the 800th year of his birth the Celestine year 2009 to 2010. Bishop John Wester said it was 2010 when Pope Benedict raised the possibility of his own resignation. History professor and Catholic scholar Glenn Olsen said that just because it hasn't happened in nearly 600 years, Church law allows for papal resignation. "You can feel yourself losing energy and one wonders whether actually he had been thinking about this for some considerable time," Olsen said.
"It's quite possible, that some of the, I think most likely an African actually, but possibly a Latin American would be elected."
Catholic school students weigh in
Most students at Juan Diego Catholic High School didn't hear the news about the resignation of Pope Benedict until they arrived to school. But it provided a perfect opportunity for them to discuss in class what this means to them.
"Totally shocking," said Madeline Lehman. "I didn't even know what happened until I came into religion class. I didn't know they could do that either."
Teacher Nicole Veltri said it is dramatically changing Catholic history and her future lectures.
"I started two weeks ago before our pope project saying, ‘Popes never resign,' and this morning I was proven wrong; popes do resign," she said.
Veltri said Pope Benedict's influence has helped to shape her students' lives.
"I think he really had people look at what it means to be Catholic and embrace Catholicism from its roots and he very much did that in a way that was unapologetic and made people say, ‘this is what I believe.' "
For junior Dominic Colosimo, Pope Benedict is the pope he can best remember.
"I was in third grade and always remember seeing the white smoke come out of the chimney when they elected Pope Benedict."
While he said he is sad to see the pope resign because of ill health, he's looking forward to seeing who will be the next leader of his faith, the pope who will lead Catholics through the next chapter of his life.
With the election of a new pope to begin in just a few days, students here will get to see a critical moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church firsthand.
"I will have seen two different popes elected in my lifetime at such a young age, so it is an honor," Colosimo said.
Worshipers in the Uintah Basin
"I didn't cry, but I had some tears cause I love this pope very much," said Thomas Stinger, who is a Parishoner at St Helen's Catholic Church.
For Stinger, Monday's announcement brought a mix of sadness and respect for Pope Benedict.
"He has a great trust in the life of the church, and in who's really running the church, which is the Holy Spirit," he said.
Judy Guinn, who received an apostolic blessing from the pope in 2010 to celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary, sees the unexpected resignation as a chance for young Catholics to learn more about their faith.
"I'm excited for the kids to see the process they're going to be going through on how the catholic church does elect a pope," Guinn said.
Father Manuel Ceron serves the nearly 300 Catholic families living in the Uintah Basin. He offered special prayers at this morning's mass for the pope and the cardinals who will elect his successor.
"We prayed that we will have a pope that will continue the leading of the church in the way that Pope Benedict has done it till this day," Rev. Ceron said.
Ceron, who is from Mexico, said Pope Benedict's visit to his native country in 2012 endeared him to Catholics there.
"That meant a lot for us, not only as Mexicans but as Hispanics," Rev. Ceron said. "I mean the pope loves the church, loves the children of the church and he is our pastor."
In October, one parishioner and member of the Ute Tribe made a pilgrimage to the Vatican to attend the canonization of the Church's first Native American saint. She said because of that experience, Pope Benedict will always have a special place in her heart.
Contributing: Randall Jeppesen