THE mood in Rome following the shock resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is one of complete surprise, a Northern Ireland-born priest there said.
Fr Aidan McGrath, from Banbridge, said that, although the news was totally unexpected, he saw it as a positive thing that retirement is still an option within the church.
The 58-year-old, who works in canon law and is Secretary General of the Order of Friars Minor in Rome, checked the Internet on Monday morning after someone said there was a rumour circulating that the Pope - who was elected in 2005 - was to retire.
Speaking from Rome Fr Aidan said: “I didn’t believe it for a second but the person told me it had been reported by an Italian news agency so I checked and there it was. I couldn’t believe it.”
And while he said it is sad that someone he saw as such a good leader within the Church is to step down, Fr Aidan is of the opinion Pope Benedict did what he thought was best.
“I am delighted that the man feels free to do this (retire),” he told the News Letter. “I think any person should be able to say that and I think it is good that he doesn’t feel pressured or burdened by the office he holds.
“He is not the type of man to be pressured or coerced into anything though so I certainly believe that he would have made that decision himself.”
The Pope is the first to have retired from office in almost 600 years.
Now the Catholic Church is challenged to appoint a new Pope, and Fr Aidan said he expects the Conclave of Cardinals will meet formally shortly after the 85-year-old steps down on February 28.
The Vatican has already said they hope to have a new Pope in place by Easter which is to be celebrated this year at the end of March.
Technically, as Fr Aidan explained, any Catholic priest could become Pope, but it is most likely the successor will be chosen from the 120 Cardinals across the world who are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in the election.
Cardinal Sean Brady, although due to step down from his role as Archbishop in Armagh in 2014 at the latest, is eligible to vote and in theory could be elected.
However Fr Aidan said he thinks it unlikely any Irish Cardinal will be chosen.
“I don’t think an Irish candidate will be a runner.”