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Palpable Excitement: Pope Prospects Excite Upper Valley Catholics

  • The Rev. Francis Belanger blesses congregants and draws a cross with ashes on their foreheads while conducting the Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Denis Catholic Church in Hanover yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    The Rev. Francis Belanger blesses congregants and draws a cross with ashes on their foreheads while conducting the Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Denis Catholic Church in Hanover yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth freshman Marylynne Sitko is a devout Catholic who would like to have an opportunity to become a priest, but would also understand if the new pope decides to continue the ban on women as priests in the faith. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Dartmouth freshman Marylynne Sitko is a devout Catholic who would like to have an opportunity to become a priest, but would also understand if the new pope decides to continue the ban on women as priests in the faith. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • While his daughter, Mary, 9, looks on, Lyme resident Brian Cook kisses his wife, Kate, on the cheek as the congregation exchanges the sign of peace during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Denis Roman Catholic Church in Hanover yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    While his daughter, Mary, 9, looks on, Lyme resident Brian Cook kisses his wife, Kate, on the cheek as the congregation exchanges the sign of peace during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Denis Roman Catholic Church in Hanover yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Rev. Francis Belanger blesses congregants and draws a cross with ashes on their foreheads while conducting the Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Denis Catholic Church in Hanover yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    The Rev. Francis Belanger blesses congregants and draws a cross with ashes on their foreheads while conducting the Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Denis Catholic Church in Hanover yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Rev. Francis Belanger blesses congregants and draws a cross with ashes on their foreheads while conducting the Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Denis Catholic Church in Hanover yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Dartmouth freshman Marylynne Sitko is a devout Catholic who would like to have an opportunity to become a priest, but would also understand if the new pope decides to continue the ban on women as priests in the faith. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • While his daughter, Mary, 9, looks on, Lyme resident Brian Cook kisses his wife, Kate, on the cheek as the congregation exchanges the sign of peace during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Denis Roman Catholic Church in Hanover yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • The Rev. Francis Belanger blesses congregants and draws a cross with ashes on their foreheads while conducting the Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Denis Catholic Church in Hanover yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Hanover — A pair of Upper Valley priests this week said they have already politely declined the Vatican’s offer to assume the papacy, following Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement Monday that he was resigning from the post at the end of the month.

They were just kidding, of course — but their tone reflected the excitement expressed by many Catholics around the Upper Valley this week on the heels of Benedict’s stunning decision, a move that is unprecedented in the modern era and will ignite the process of selecting a new pope for the second time since 2005.

The priests echoed several area Catholics when they said the announcement, in which the 85-year-old Benedict cited failing strength of “mind and body,” was at once shocking and commendable: While they love and respect Benedict and will be sad to see him go, they ultimately thought the decision showed strength and good judgment.

“This pope made a decision that no one did in the last 600 years,” said the Rev. William Kaliyadan, pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Lebanon. “He not only created history and showed his courage, but he showed his profound humility, and told the whole world that being a leader of the biggest organization, the Catholic church, is totally about serving people (and) has nothing to do with power or position.”

He and the Rev. Francis Belanger, pastor at St. Denis Catholic Church in Hanover, also joked that Benedict made the biggest sacrifice of all — the papacy — heading into the six-week holy season of Lent, which began yesterday on the holy day Ash Wednesday, and during which Catholics customarily give up something meaningful to them.

The news comes during an extended period of tumult for the church: Nationally, the latest surveys of American Catholics reveal sharp drops in weekly Mass attendance, a majority in support of legalizing same-sex marriage, and a large majority who say they do not look to the Vatican as the moral authority on sexual matters such as contraception, marriage and abortion, said William D’Antonio, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and author of a national survey that has tracked Catholic attitudes for 25 years.

The sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the U.S. church, along with its hard-line stands on celibate priests, homosexuality and ordaining women, have pushed many Americans away from the church, which is still the nation’s largest single denomination.

Kaliyadan, Belanger and other Upper Valley Catholics said they hoped the process of selecting a new pope will shine a positive spotlight on the church in the coming months and inject energy and excitement into dialogue surrounding religion and Catholicism.

“When something like this happens, it’s an occasion for conversation,” said Belanger, adding that Benedict’s announcement dominated conversation during a recent Bible study session and gathering at Dartmouth College’s Catholic student center, the Aquinas House.

“I hope people are deepening their understanding of the church from the inside,” he said. “From the outside, I suppose the same can happen; people are very curious whether they’re Catholic or not.”

Rumors and speculation about who will take over the papacy have been swirling since news broke Monday, with some wondering whether the conclave — the 118 cardinals who will select Benedict’s successor, who is expected to be chosen by Easter Mass in April — might choose, for the first time, a non-European pope, or somebody more open to things such as allowing the ordination of female priests, departing from the strict conservatism of Benedict’s eight-year tenure.

But how does Randall Balmer, chairman of Dartmouth College’s Religion Department place those odds?

“Sadly,” he said, they’re like “a snowball’s chance in hell.”

Because the cardinals were all appointed by “men in their own image,” he said, “I think it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find the church turning toward somebody who’s ready to enact real reforms. And I say that with a great deal of sadness; I’m not Catholic, but I have a great deal of affection and empathy for the Catholic church.”

Dartmouth freshman Marylynne Sitko, a Catholic and two-term student of Balmer’s, said she didn’t feel as connected to Benedict as she did to his predecessor, John Paul II.

She was unsure “if there needs to be a really liberal pope,” she said, but hoped for somebody with “a lot of stamina and vigor to make Catholicism more accessible to all people.”

“Especially being on a college campus, people don’t seem to be energized about religion in the modern era, and it seems like the new fad is to be atheist or so-called humanist,” said Sitko, who attended Catholic school in Baltimore prior to enrolling at Dartmouth. “I just feel like there needs to be a person in this authority like the papacy to make news about how much religion has done for humanity, and especially the Catholic church and its impact on history” and America, such as cultivating charity and building community.

She added that Catholic church doctrine prohibits women from celebrating masses through means such as the priesthood for reasons that “aren’t very clear to me.”

While she’s not sure at this point whether she feels called to ministry, she said she would prefer to have the option, and has heard similar sentiments from other people her age.

“Many of them have also spoken with me about how they feel that the church is very male-dominated, it’s very concentrated on men in the priesthood, and women especially in the 21st century should have more of an opportunity to be part of leadership,” she said.

She doesn’t expect the next pope to allow female priests — adding “I think it’s more of a societal thing than a religious thing” — but hopes for a gradual change, such as allowing women to be deacons.

“I really think that would be a positive step in creating more energy in the Catholic church,” she said.

While Balmer and others said that the pope remains relevant to American Catholics, Balmer pointed to Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968 to reaffirm the church’s traditional teachings on matters like prohibiting contraception, as a turning point which “in an odd way Protestantized Catholicism in America,” he said, so that American Catholics “came to believe that they could disobey the pope on a fundamental Catholic teaching and still consider themselves to be good Catholics.”

According to the survey conducted by D’Antonio, the Catholic University sociologist, recent national trends have shown Catholics cleaved into two camps: one in which their religion is defined by its core tenets, the sacraments and concern for the poor, and another in which the church’s authority on the most personal aspects of life remains clear and essential.

But attitudes expressed by Catholics around the Upper Valley were less clear-cut. Exiting mass at St. Denis yesterday morning, long time parishioner Margarethe Chobanian, of Etna, said that although she holds “different views” than the church on certain issues such as allowing women to be priests, she said she nevertheless would support any pope.

“I feel that whether I agree with the new pope on all issues, I will be obedient to his wishes because I’ll feel that he was chosen by God,” said Chobanian, 58, ashes in the shape of the cross fresh on her forehead. “I feel that there’s a lot of virtue and humility in obedience. Christ said I will be with you throughout all time, so I feel that he’s actively in the church and directing it. Even though I might like to see a female priest or a married priest or whatever, I accept all that God has in store for us in the 21st century.”

She and parishioner Mary Kemp, of Hanover, said they were both excited about the news and agreed that Benedict’s decision was commendable. But Kemp, 70, said she was unwilling to speculate about what kind of person should assume the papacy, or what direction he should take the church in. A conservative Catholic, she admired Benedict, she said, and had faith that “whoever is pope is in fact whom God wants to be pope. ...

“I think it’s silly for the laypeople to think that they can put something in the mix,” she said. “You know, we’re not a democracy. ... I just believe that (who is chosen) is who God wants.”

Material from the Washington Post was used in this report. Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.