by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The United States didn’t yet exist the last time a Catholic pope stepped down, a fact that awes archdiocesan seminarian Luke Doyle.
Doyle and Agustin Martinez, both seminarians in their first year of theology for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, are studying in Rome.
Despite their location, neither of them — like most of the world — had any inkling Feb. 11 was going to bring news that would put them at the heart of history in the making.
“I don’t think any of us wake up in the morning wondering if the pope will resign today,” Doyle said, noting that shock is the first thing he felt.
It was about noon in Rome, and he was outside walking after class when two men pulled him aside and talked to him in broken Italian.
Their message just didn’t sink in, and Doyle thought at first, “My Italian is failing me because I think they’re telling me the pope has resigned.”
As he made his way through the streets, though, the reality hit.
Likewise, Martinez, who started hearing the news as he prepared for a noon Mass, thought it was a hoax until he checked for himself.
“At the Mass, the only thing I was keeping in my mind was him and praying for him and the cardinals,” said Martinez.
He has seized many opportunities in Rome to see Pope Benedict, whom he admires, but was also moved by his presence in 2011 during a pilgrimage seminarians made to Spain for World Youth Day.
“He was just a great witness of faith and sanctity,” said Martinez.
He knows many issues within the church and the world must weigh heavily on the pope, and he has noticed his physical strength wane as his age catches up to him — the very reasons the pope cited for his decision in his announcement.
Despite any physical weaknesses, though, the pope’s action demonstrated greatness in other ways.
“That humility made me admire him even more,” said Martinez.
Doyle’s sadness at seeing the pope go soon gave way to a sense of gratefulness for what God has given him, the time the Holy Father spent leading the church and the opportunity to represent Kansas in Rome at this time.
“I’m humbled I’m here in the Eternal City taking in everything as it happens,” Doyle said.
The city itself seemed somewhat confused and upset the day the news broke.
“There’s still a lot of surprise and confusion and, at some level, I would say a degree of not wanting to accept it yet,” Martinez said.
It was hard even for the seminarians to fully accept it.
“People were teary and even crying out there in [St. Peter’s] Square,” Martinez added.
Both men made their way to the square that day.
On a normal day, Doyle said the media presence there is limited to the Eternal World Television Network and maybe one or two Italian journalists.
But not on Feb. 11.
“It was amazing to see not just EWTN and a couple of Italian journalists, but CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times — all sorts of journalists and television stations from all over the world just trickle in,” said Doyle.
He visited with more than a dozen English-speaking people who were visiting as pilgrims. Many came out of the church and didn’t know what was happening, so Doyle shared the news and what it meant.
He prayed with them, asking for guidance for the Holy Father and for those involved in the process to determine a successor.
A humble, holy man
Benedictine College sophomore Natalie Bunker stayed in Rome Jan. 30-Feb. 7 before moving nearly three hours north to Florence, Italy, to study this semester.
She was moved by the peace and comfort she felt hearing Pope Benedict’s words during a papal audience in Rome on Feb. 6.
So she and her classmates were shocked to get out of class a few days later and hear the news of his resignation, because they never imagined it could happen.
But she also understands.
“His decision is one I fully respect because I believe it takes a humble man to give up such a powerful role,” she said. “His decision was selfless; he resigned because he felt too weak to fulfill his duty. It is tragic to hear Pope Benedict is stepping down, but I trust in God and I know something great will come of this.”
Doyle has often leaned on a quote from Pope Benedict as he discerned his own path in life, and those words came to mind after he heard the news.
“The world promises you comfort,” Pope Benedict said. “But you are not made for comfort. You are made for greatness.”
That has inspired Doyle to be the best, holiest version of himself he can be.
“The Holy Father is a brilliant man, a very spiritual man, a very holy man, and has a very gifted mind,” he said. “I have learned a great deal from his example of humility. It’s kind of brought to a climax today.”