"Floored" and saddened by Monday's news out of the Vatican, some Utah Catholic leaders wondered whether Benedict XVI's surprise resignation would prompt future popes to step aside early as well.
Bishop John C. Wester, leader of the 300,000-strong Diocese of Salt Lake City, sees the pope's decision to bow out at age 85 as "yet another sign of his humility and of his care for the future well-being of the church. I think it is significant that instead of clinging to power, he voluntarily relinquishes it in the service of the church that he has guided so well, placing it into the hands of God's loving providence."
Later, at a news conference, Wester said that Benedict's voluntary retirement could set an example for his successors.
"I believe [he] is breaking new ground," Wester said. "It certainly will provide a precedent for future popes. If they feel they are in the same condition, they might take the same step. Benedict has made it a little easier."
The Rev. Erik Richtsteig of St. James the Just Catholic Church in Ogden supports the pope but hopes his action won't start a papal trend.
"He's been a wonderful Holy Father," Richtsteig said. "I can't find fault with anything that he's done. I wish he felt his health would allow him to continue."
When Pope John Paul II was thinking of resigning because of failing health, Richtsteig said, it was Benedict (then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) who talked the Polish pontiff out of it, saying, "There is no room in the church for an ex-pope."
The "Vicar of Christ" should continue to "follow the example of St. Peter," the Ogden priest said. "A pope should be in it for life until the Lord takes him."
Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, who retired in 2011 as the Utah diocese's vicar general, understands Benedict's desire to retire.
"It's so hard for himto meet the demands of the office, especially all the traveling," Fitzgerald said. "He didn't have the energy he expected of himself. That's why I retired, too."
The Utah priest applauded the pope's unexpected move.
"It's a wise man who has the courage to step down when it's not the tradition," Fitzgerald said. "He will be remembered for his total dedication and for his writings."
University of Utah historian Colleen McDannell called Benedict's action "the first modern thing he's ever done."
The whole concept of retirement "is so modern," said McDannell, author of The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America. "The pope does not want to show the world what it means to grow old and die in a diminished state. He wants to go out at the height of his game."
Wester in a separate letter to Utah priests, deacons, religious and lay faithful asked them all to pray for the pope specifically during Mass on Sunday, Feb. 24.
As for the choice of a new pope, the Utah bishop is intrigued by the possibility of someone from Africa or Latin America, he said at the news conference, but has no personal preference.
Benedict's announcement was "jarring," Wester said. "But life goes on."
And, he said, so will the church.