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Amid praise for pontiff, some see chance for change

A kneeling Adelina Hidalgo held a picture of Pope Benedict XVI in the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador.

Ulises Rodriguez/Reuters

A kneeling Adelina Hidalgo held a picture of Pope Benedict XVI in the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador.

RIO DE JANEIRO — From the parishes of Poland to the churches of Chile, Roman Catholics around the world were stunned Monday at the first papal resignation in six centuries, even as many prayed for a new charismatic pontiff who could lead the church into a new era after decades of disaffection and mistrust.

News of the pope’s resignation surprised even the most prominent Roman Catholic prelate in the United States — the cardinal who leads the nation’s bishops.

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Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was saying his prayers at 6 a.m. when his spokesman called to say ‘‘the rumor is from Rome that Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation.’’

He didn’t believe it, the cardinal said, and ‘‘both of us chuckled, because we heard rumors like that before and didn’t take them seriously.’’ This time it was true.

‘‘I have to be honest, I’m as shocked and as startled as all of you,’’ Dolan told reporters at his residence near St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the heart of midtown Manhattan.

‘‘We received the news with great regret and much surprise,’’ said Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who was discussed as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II when he died in 2005. ‘‘This is something completely new for the Catholic Church, though it was discussed during the illness of Pope John Paul II.

“I didn’t know Pope Benedict XVI would make this decision, but the last time I talked to him he seemed physically tired,’’ Maradiaga said.

Alis Ramirez, an ice cream seller headed to church in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, insisted, ‘‘He can’t quit like that. This can’t be.’’

But some of the faithful didn’t consider it bad news.

‘‘I don’t care or feel sorry that the pope resigned because he never entered my heart like John Paul II did,’’ said Rosita Mejia, who sells religious icons outside La Merced church in downtown Santiago, Chile. ‘‘In fact, it’s good that he leaves. He’s done his job and it’s time for him to rest. In five years outside this church, only one person asked me for a Benedict stamp, while hundreds asked for John Paul’s stamp.’’

Inside, Pedro Prado mopped the shiny wooden floor of La Merced, where he has been the sexton for more than 25 years.  

‘‘It’s not normal for the pope to resign. I just hope health is the real reason. There were a lot of issues coming out with the pope’s butler papers,’’ said Prado, referring to the scandal over a former butler stealing documents from the papal apartment.

The pope’s announcement that he will step aside on Feb. 28 reawakened calls for a more energetic successor, perhaps from Africa or Latin America — long considered a bulwark against continued losses in church membership in Europe and the United States.

While the church has been battered by growing secularism and sex abuse scandals in the Northern Hemisphere, the number of believers is growing in Africa, as well as Latin America. ‘‘Europe today is going through a period of cultural tiredness, exhaustion, which is reflected in the way Christianity is lived,’’ said Bishop Antonio Marto, of Fatima in central Portugal. ‘‘You don’t see that in Africa or Latin America where there is a freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith.’’

Elaine Herald, manager at St. Theresa of the Infant Jesus Parish in New Cumberland, near Harrisburg, Pa., welcomed the speculation about a progressive pope, perhaps one who is black.

‘‘We’re kind of excited at the [prospect] of a pope that our Catholics seem to be screaming for,’’ Herald said.

Others praised Benedict for his defense of traditional values.

‘‘He has always been a defender of the faith against women in the clergy, against Planned Parenthood, against abortion. He’s been a defender of the faith against heresies in the church,’’ said Eric Husseini, a member of the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, after attending morning Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Hagerstown, Md.

In Latin America, home to about 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, believers hoped the cardinals who select Benedict’s successor will pay close attention to candidates from their region.

‘‘I think it’s time to name a pope from Latin America,’’ 65-year-old homemaker Josefa Sanchez said at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Santa Tecla, a city on the outskirts of El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador. ‘‘Really, they should name one of ours, they’ve only named Europeans until now.’’

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