As Frank Keller stood less than 50 feet from Pope Benedict XVI last September, he noticed the leader of the Catholic church looked frail.
“I wondered at the time how a person can do this magnificent job and keep up the pace,” Keller, deacon at St. Luke Catholic Church in Nicholasville, said.
Still, the Vatican’s announcement Monday that the 85-year-old pope is stepping down Feb. 28 came as a surprise to the deacon.
Keller, 52, said the unexpected resignation also has shocked many church members.
“Usually, you’ve had some sort of preparation,” he said. “It’s kind of caught us off guard.”
Benedict said he lacks the strength to fulfill his duties and called his choice to resign “a decision of great importance for the life of the church,” according to the Associated Press.
The pope has slowed down significantly in the past few years, cutting back on foreign travel and using a cane at times, the AP reported.
“In order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary — strengths which in the last few months have deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” the Pope said, according to the AP¿report.
Benedict, who was 78 when he was elected in 2005, was the oldest pope chosen in almost 300 years.
Because this is the first resignation of a pope in 600 years, Keller said he is uncertain about the process of electing a new leader.
“There are a lot of things that we will be finding out,” he said. “We think (the election) will turn out to be just like when a pope dies, but we’re not sure.”
The Vatican will hold a conclave in March to elect the new pontiff.
Keller said he can’t really guess whom the College of Cardinals might elect as the new pope.
“I know what the media are saying, but, in my experience, it usually ends up being somebody else,” he said.
Speculations have centered on cardinals from New York, Latin America, Africa, Brazil and Argentina, he said.
“There is quite a bit of feeling that this will be a much younger person (than Pope Benedict XVI),” Keller said.
Keller said that, thought St. Luke isn’t holding any prayer vigils, he does hope people will pray that the cardinals will be able to pick a good leader for the church.
Though Benedict’s decision to step down is a surprise to many Catholics, it probably weighed on the pope’s mind for quite a while, Keller said.
“I think that this is something he’s prayed and thought over,” he said.
Seeing the pope was the highlight of Keller’s trip to Rome in September, he said. It is something he will always remember.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference to us (on the trip), if he’d been younger,” he said.