Pope Benedict the Sixteenth officially resigns Thursday. He’s the first pope to step down in nearly 600 years.
His surprise retirement hits close to home in the Chicago region -- nearly 40 percent of the population of Cook and Lake counties is Catholic. So the question of Benedict’s impact – and the wish list Catholics have for the next pope – are hot topics here.
The annual Parish Leadership Day just happened to fall the weekend before the Roman Catholic church's historic transition: the pope's last day.
More than 1,300 came to Mother McCauley High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side to network, pray and attend workshops on things like teen-age spirituality and parish record keeping.
Picking a new pope wasn't on the agenda, but it was a source of buzz, nonetheless.
"I think there’s some excitement about the new Holy Father. I’m sure of that," said Ruth Krol.
She's one of 2 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Krol attends St. Columba parish on the city’s far Southeast Side.
She said Benedict did a “fine job,” but she’d like the next pope to be more supportive of American nuns. Last year the Vatican reprimanded America’s largest coalition of religious sisters for feminist views and assigned a male bishop to oversee them.
"I think it was really dreadful, you know, to do this to these women who dedicate their lives, their very lives," Krol said. "I think they do much, much more than a lot of the clergy does."
While the pope was a popular topic, much of the talk at Saturday's Parish Leadership Day focused on other matters, like how to get more Catholics to Mass and to connect more deeply with their faith.
These concerns are pressing because more than one in 10 American Catholics has left the church. Like many spots across the nation, The Chicago Archdiocese faces a priest shortage, declining Catholic school enrollment and priest sex abuse scandals. These are issues the cardinals will take on as they select a new pope in the coming days.
Cardinal Francis George is already in Rome to take part in that process. But before he left, he took part in the Leadership Day, where he spoke to more than 1,000 people in the school gym. He gave an insider’s view of how cardinals cast their votes inside the Sistine Chapel. He joked that his own chances were slim. And he asked for the lay leaders' prayers in selecting a new pope.
"He’ll keep us connected to the 1,300,000,000 Catholics around the world," Cardinal George said. "He’s the primary symbol for that, and that’s the big impact, so people don’t make decisions in light of their own needs, or even their parish’s needs or even the archdiocese’s needs."
In the hallway outside, two priests debated where the next pope should come from. A young Polish priest thought he should come from Africa, where the church is growing fast.
But Father Adan Sandoval, who works at a primarily Latino parish in Cicero, notes that 40 percent of the Archdiocese is Latino. He thinks the next pope should come from South America.
"I think it’s time," Father Sandoval said. "I think most people are very open for the church to keep moving. They know that Europe has been such a tremendous impact to the church, but I think the church now is more vibrant and live in countries like South America. The most Catholic country is Brazil, for example."
Over at the Chicago headquarters of SNAP – the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests – founder Barbara Blaine has different hopes for the next pope. She’d like him to open up Vatican personnel records, crack down on bishops who transfer or shelter sex abusers, and compile names of priests who have sexually abused children and post them on church websites.
"I’m hoping that this will be a new era," Blaine said. "I’m hoping that the new pope takes a completely different line of response to the crisis of sex abuse by priests than Pope Benedict. I think Pope Benedict’s tenure has been dismal."
But Peter Breen disagreed about Pope Benedict's record on priest sex abuse. He heads the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a law firm that has represented the Catholic Church in opposing birth control, same sex marriage and abortion.
"I know there are some folks that have been trying to criticize him (Pope Benedict) on that front, but he has never tolerated this," said Breen. "He has been very good about ensuring that punishment was swift and the church tried whatever it could to repair with the victims and to move forward."
Breen thinks Benedict will be remembered well, both for his clear teachings and for continuing the legacy of his popular predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
Both popes are widely viewed as moving the church in a more conservative direction, enforcing positions that aren’t always popular with many American Catholics. Studies show that a majority favor birth control, gay marriage and legal abortion.
"There’s a group of people who think of the church as a political organization that can be lobbied, that doctrine, deep points of doctrine, can be changed," Breen said. "And that’s not what a church is. The church is not the U.S. government. You don’t go to Rome like you’re going to Springfield to lobby for a bill."
But Julie Drew, a retired elementary school teacher, said she knows the church can change. She attends St. Nicholas church in Evanston.
Drew lived through the 2nd Vatican Council in the early 1960s. She saw the Latin Mass end and more women take an active role in the church. She thinks it’s time for women to be priests, and she sees a disconnect between the church’s male hierarchy and American Catholics in the pews.
"The reason I’m here has nothing to do with the goo-goo-hat guys in Rome," Drew said. "It has everything to do with this community, and that was kind of a gift of Vatican II, is that we empowered communities and we looked at each other and said: 'Those guys aren’t the church, we’re the church.' "
A fellow St. Nick's parishioner, Haiti native Maria Senecal, is hoping for a pope who focuses on peace, justice and immigrant rights. But her daughter, 14-year-old Vanessa, wonders how much impact a new pope will have.
Vanessa attends Mass regularly with her family. There are local and national campaigns to excite young people like her and others about the Catholic church and keep them from leaving. But to Vanessa, the Vatican and election of the new pope still feels very far away.
"I don’t think it affects me too much," Vanessa said. "I mean, I don’t know that much about it. It doesn’t make that much of a difference to me, because I kind of come to church and what happens, happens. I feel like it’s more for the adults in charge kind of thing."
Even if Vanessa can’t see it now, the next pope will have a direct impact here. He will choose the next archbishop of Chicago.
WBEZ's Diana Buendia contributed to this report.