BANGOR, Maine — The Rev. Seamus Griesbach learned from a parishioner early Monday morning that Pope Benedict XVI had announced his resignation effective Feb. 28.
“I received a text message at 6:30 this morning that said, ‘Rise and shine, the pope resigned,’” the Catholic priest assigned to St. Paul the Apostle Parish, which is made up of churches in Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Winterport, said Monday afternoon.
“It’s not entirely unforeseen but I don’t think anyone expected it,” he said of the pontiff’s decision.
Lay Catholics in Maine also said they were surprised but not shocked by the pope’s announcement. Although there was no consensus on what direction a new pope should take, they agreed that the selection of a new pontiff most likely will delay the appointment of a new bishop in Maine.
Catholics in the Pine Tree State have been without a spiritual leader since August when Bishop Richard J. Malone became head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y. Malone remains the apostolic administrator of the Maine diocese but is not often in the state.
“Nothing will happen before a new pope is in place,” the Rev. Thomas Worcester, a history professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said in a telephone interview. Worcester teaches a class on the history of the papacy and authored “The Papacy since 1500: From Italian Prince to Universal Pastor.”
“There will be no new bishops appointed until the new pope has been in place a little while,” the Jesuit priest predicted.
Dave Guthro, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, agreed.
“In reality, this development likely delays the process [of a new bishop being appointed],” he said in an email accompanying Malone’s reaction to the resignation.
The bishop urged Maine Catholics to pray for the pope. He also said he was surprised by the resignation announcement.
“When I met with the pope in November 2011 at the Vatican, he did seem rather frail,” Malone said. “I wish to express my gratitude for his faithful ministry as Successor of St. Peter, his life of scholarship and his faithful leadership of the Catholic church. One of the hallmarks of Pope Benedict XVI is his humility and pastoral concern in putting the good of the church first in his discernment. I cherish the pectoral cross he gave to me and other bishops who met with him during our  visit.”
Brett Baber who attends St. John Catholic Church and is a member of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic organization, said he hoped a new pope would not implement major changes.
“My expectation is that they will select someone with deep faith in God and Christ who will likely carry on the values that have been demonstrated by the church since Vatican II,” Baber of Veazie said. “I don’t expect to see a new pope make many doctrinal changes but I would like him to be a catalyst for peace.”
Sue Ewing of Portland said Benedict made the right decision.
“I am glad that he did this,” she said. “I think the time probably had come.”
Ewing attends Mass at Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Parish in Portland. She was active in Catholics for Marriage Equality, which supported the
referendum in November that made same-sex marriage legal in Maine in defiance of Malone.
“I hope we have a pope who will listen to the people,” she said. “I think that the people are making noise and the spirit is blowing. I think the spirit is blowing through the church.”
Ewing said she felt under Benedict and his bishops, the church “has not been going in the right direction. We’ve lost track of what we’re all about and concentrated too much on rules and doctrine.”
The election of a new pope will be a different experience for Griesbach than it was eight years ago. In 2005, he was a seminarian studying in Rome when Benedict was elected. He was having coffee at a cafe in Vatican City with some friends visiting from Maine when church bells rang out all over the city.
“Everybody dropped everything and headed to St. Peter’s Square,” he said. “Every street in the city suddenly became a one-way street. The piazza [outside St. Peter’s Basilica] went from having a few hundred people to 300,000 in half an hour.”
Griesbach will be in Maine tending to his flock during Lent when the next pontiff is announced.
“A holy pope, I think that’s the first need of the church,” the priest said. “A person who is close to God and a man of virtue, who is courageous.”
For Griesbach, a courageous pope would be one who could offer hope to Catholics and non-Catholics that there is a place for the faithful in the United States and Europe, where the secularization of society has caused a dramatic decrease in the number of Catholics attending Mass and taking part in other sacraments.
“We’re living through a time of cultural upheaval in the West where being Christian in our foundations is under serious challenge,” the priest said. “The church in Europe and the U.S. faces some serious challenges and that will require a real steady hand. You have to be able to not lose hope in the face of that.”
Griesbach said a pope who can offer that hope is what the church really needs in the 21st century.