By Molly Miron, Special to the Pioneer
BEMIDJI – When the leader of the Holy See – the Roman Catholic Church and its estimated 1 billion members – realizes he is unable to carry out his responsibilities, retirement is the right decision.
That is the opinion of local priests Monsigneur Bill Mehrkens, and Revs. Don Braukmann and Craig Vasek.
“The last Pope, John Paul II, in one of his times of sickness, I said he should retire,” Mehrkens, of Bemidji, said Monday after Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement. “I’m not in favor of having people of that age directing the work of the church. I wouldn’t trust myself at that age.”
Declaring that he lacks the strength to do his job, Pope Benedict XVI, 85, announced Monday he will resign Feb. 28 – becoming the first pontiff to step down in 600 years, according to the Associated Press. His decision sets the stage for a mid-March conclave to elect a new leader for a Catholic Church in deep turmoil.
Mehrkens, who turns 90 this year, was ordained in 1950 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn. He retired when he was 74. He said he joined the Diocese of Crookston because “I wanted something more intimate, smaller, more country-style.”
The community is invited to Mehrkens’ celebration of Mass and the party following the service March 10 at St. Philip’s Church in honor of his 90th birthday.
Mehrkens has served under five popes: Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
“I had no objection to Pope Benedict, but he’s almost my age,” Mehrkens said.
The current priests at Bemidji’s St. Philip’s Church agree that Pope Benedict has made the correct decision.
“My first reaction was surprise, but I’m also grateful that if he can’t fulfill his duties, it’s a good idea,” said Braukmann.
“It’s mind boggling for most people, both inside and outside the church,” said Vasek.
Neither Mehrkens nor Braukmann have met Pope Benedict, but Vasek, who also serves St. Philip’s, attended a special audience for the students of the American Seminary in Rome.
“I studied in Rome from 2006 to 2011,” Vasek said. “We were celebrating the 150th anniversary of the American Seminary Jan. 9, 2010. I was able to shake (Pope Benedict’s) hand as he slowly walked by and kiss his ring and say ‘We love you.’”
Vasek said he also offered Pope Benedict greetings from the Diocese of Crookston.
Vasek said the next steps after Feb. 28 are for the College of Cardinals to meet, pray and elect a new Pope.
“(I) ask all people of good will to pray to the Holy Spirit that our next Holy Father will be a holy and humble shepherd of Christ’s church,” Vasek said.
Mehrkens said he also hopes the next Pope will be a younger man. “Having to reach old age to become Pope – I don’t think that’s healthy,” he said. “I think the church needs some younger blood.”