Jumping on the treadmill at 5:30 in the morning, Bishop William Dendinger got unexpected news. Pope Benedict will retire before the month's end."I must say I was surprised because it hasn't happened for 600 years," Dendinger said.
The bishop of the Grand Island Diocese said it was a closely held secret, known by only the pope's closest advisors.
Dendinger and Pope Benedict have crossed paths.
On Thanksgiving day 2004, one month before his ordination, Bishop Dendinger watched a German priest then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger give a spirited presentation. Dendinger remembered, "He was very, very vibrant then. He lectured to us an hour and a half in English about medical ethics, very complicated without notes and seemed to have a lot of stamina." But in recent years, Bishop Dendinger saw a noticeable decline in the pope's health. "Just didn't have stamina and his voice was weak. I should've noticed then that his health was deteriorating to where it would be very, very difficult to keep his daily schedule," he said.
Still, the pope's resignation comes as a shock. That was the reaction of Father Joseph Walsh of Hastings. He said the decision was "surprising, but also a great act of courage" that the pope would "freely decide" to give up his position while he was of sound mind.
Walsh said Benedict was around when Pope John Paul II was physically declining and saw how he struggled in his role.
Walsh said, "I really admire the man more" for choosing to retire before his health made it difficult to carry on his duties.
Dendinger thinks it could blaze a new trail.
He said, "I think it opens the door for some pope in the future to say, 'when I'm not up to it physically, or emotionally, or psychologically or spiritually' it gives them a door to say 'I think I should resign.'"
Under church law, bishops must turn in their resignation at age 75, something Dendinger will do next year, in May 2014.
The next pope will likely appoint a new bishop for central and western Nebraska at that time.
Some of those parishes have diminished, others have grown with immigrant populations that have reshaped the Catholic Church and may play a role in determining the next pope.
Dendinger said it's notable the last two popes were European after centuries of only Italian popes. He said it's quite possible the next pontiff could come from the developing world.
"Do we need to make advancements into Africa or the near east where the trouble spots are or far east where there's emerging church," he asked. For Bishop Dendinger, Pope Benedict's legacy is clear. "Very much a philosopher, a thinker but a person of very deep faith and he did do a lot in trying to relate faith to reason and reason to faith, so I think that's his legacy," he said.
Father Walsh of Hastings said Benedict is a "great theologian and leader."
The bishop says he's already heard names that should be considered, but reminds local Catholics it's less about politics and more about prayer to elect the next pope.