As Catholics receive their ashes today to mark the start of Lent, they also are being asked to pray for the future of the church’s leadership.
The Rev. Frank Richardson, pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in north Forsyth, said he’s asking his “congregation to pray and send the Holy Spirit upon that group of cardinals so we get the right pope.”
Richardson’s request follows Monday’s surprise announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will step down at the end of the month.
In a speech Monday, the 85-year-old Benedict cited his age and resulting deterioration of physical and mental strength in his decision to step down. It marks the first time in nearly 600 years a pope has done so.
His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, served for more than a quarter of a century before his death in 2005.
“I think he did a very, very brave thing,” Richardson said of Benedict. “He left the church in a very good state — not perfect — but a very good state. And we look forward to the months ahead.”
Richardson called John Paul II a “hard act to follow.” But despite his shorter term, Benedict “has done remarkably well.”
The Rev. Robert Presutti, principal of Pinecrest Academy in south Forsyth, said the news is a chance for children to learn more about their faith’s traditions.
“Historic events like these are always teachable moments,” he said. “It’s unprecedented. None of us in our lifetime have ever experienced a pope resigning.
“We will be following the unfolding of events, what is a papal conclave and what is the ministry and the role of the bishop of Rome. I think that way it will become something that will really help the children understand.”
The selection process for a new pope is a distinct tradition, which involves a conclave of the Sacred College of Cardinals.
According to the Vatican’s website, the group assembles at the Vatican, where they must remain without any outside communication until a new pope has been chosen, typically by ballot vote.
Two-thirds of the cardinals must agree on the new pontiff. If a vote does not yield an agreement, the ballots are mixed with a chemical and burned, producing a black smoke that rises through the roof of the Vatican Palace to indicate a decision has not been made. When a decision has been made, no chemical is added, producing a white smoke.
If more than a dozen days have passed with no winner, the conclave could vote to allow the selection of a new pope with a simple majority, instead of two-thirds, according to the website.
Upon hearing the pope’s news, Pinecrest ninth-grade girls religion teacher Karen Strom said she read the announcement with her class, went through the letter and started talking about the process ahead.
“My particular students were in first grade when we chose Pope Benedict so they didn’t remember that,” she said. “So we went through the process of how the conclave works and what will be happening.
“We have some non-Catholic students that were interested in the process as well, because it’s not just Catholic news, it’s historical news.”
Strom said it’s an exciting process and time for the church, but the most important contribution Catholics can make is prayer.
The school is having a daily prayer at 3:30 p.m. in the chapel, Strom said.
“The main thing is that we’re praying for the Holy Father in his retirement and for the cardinals that will be coming together, for the Holy Spirit to guide them.”