Catholics in the Diocese of Baton Rouge responded with shock, surprise and such tender emotions as sympathy and compassion to the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI would retire at the end of the month.

“People were simply surprised, but I’ve been pleased with how sympathetic people have been,” said the Rev. Paul D. Counce, pastor at St. Joseph Cathedral. “Almost all of us have an 85-year-old in our families, and we’re all looking to make that person’s life easier, not more burdensome.”

Counce, speaking after the 7 a.m. Ash Wednesday service, said he was not surprised that Benedict resigned

“He’s been saying he was open to doing that and indeed felt it was necessary if he became too frail to continue,” Counce said. “He is humble enough and brave enough to say so.”

Charles Salemi, a Cathedral usher and parishioner for 25 years, while saying he wished he knew more about the pope’s decision, recognized Benedict’s age and humanity.

“He feels he’s doing the best thing for the church,” Salemi said.

Chauvin Wilkinson, a Cathedral parish member for 14 years, said he had mixed feelings: “Sadness that he is retiring, but admiration because of the great courage and humility it required.”

Across town at St. Patrick Catholic Church, parishioners and their pastor, the Rev. Jerry Martin, also discussed the pope’s announcement.

“Most people were shocked because a pope retiring in office is so rare,” Martin said, after the morning Ash Wednesday service. “A number of people are hoping it is purely of old age and not some other type of physical ailment.

“Although it is rare for a pope to retire, it is also very rare for a pope to make it to the age of 85 anyway,” Martin said. “Remember Pope John Paul II actually died at age 85.

“This man (Benedict) has always had an amazing perspective of what is best for the church universal,” Martin said. “I am sure whatever the reason behind his decision was made with that in mind. I’m sure this decision was not made out of pure weariness.”

Counce, who has a degree in canon law and serves as judicial vicar for the diocese, has met Benedict XVI three times on trips to Rome and expects him to continue to write books and theological papers in retirement.

The transition of papal power is already well established by rules that govern the retirement and resignation of bishops, Counce explained, because the pope is also the bishop of Rome.

“It is very clear, when any bishop retires or resigns and a new bishop is appointed, the prior bishop has no — zero — authority or role to play in the new administration,” Counce said. “He may (serve), if the new pope wishes — I would expect that — but always informally and way behind the scenes.

“I do suspect he will continue to be accorded some of the deferential treatment a pope typically gets — be referred to as his Holiness — like they call former President Bill Clinton, Mr. President although he is no longer the president,” Counce said.

As far as who the next pope will be, Counce said that any speculation in the media that he will be more “progressive,” is way off the mark.

“It is impossible for there to be a progressive pope since divine law cannot change,” Counce said. “The doctrines of the church cannot change. No pope has the authority to change what is true.”

Pope John Paul II set such a high bar of popularity, Counce said, that well-known cardinals such as Marc Ouellet, former archbishop of Quebec, now prefect head for the Congregation for Bishops, and Timothy Dolan, bishop of New York, might be front-runners.

If the cardinals decide to go with an African, the person most impressive to Counce is Peter Turkson, of Ghana, who now works in Rome. “There are more Catholics south of the equator than north of the equator,” Counce said.

There is also speculation the next pope might be a South American because Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, he said.

“A mistake many people make is they think the pope determines our religion, but popes come and go,” Counce said. “Pastors come and go — no matter how beloved they were or how mediocre they were. In this case Benedict has been a great churchman. His writings will continue to be studied for generations the way he applied the Bible and traditional church teachings.”