Those at the top of the hierarchy were unanimous.
A great pope, pronounced Bishop Peter Jugis, who heads the 46-county Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. A great teacher, added Abbot Placid Solari, who leads the Benedictine monks at Belmont Abbey College.
But the people in the pews were divided Monday when asked about Pope Benedict XVI and his stunning decision to step down from an office nearly all of his predecessors held for life.
Reflecting the ideological split in the U.S. Catholic Church and in Mecklenburg County, where Roman Catholics now make up the largest denomination conservatives saluted the present pope for continuing the traditionalist agenda of the last one, John Paul II.
Liberal and some middle-of-the-road Catholics, meanwhile, charged that Benedict has tried to extinguish the reformist fires of Vatican II, a church-wide council in the 1960s that sought to modernize the 2,000-year-old church.
Both views were offered by worshipers on their way to 9 a.m. Mass at St. Vincent de Paul in south Charlotte.
I thought he was an extremely conservative pope, and I kind of looked askance at his attempts to reverse ... (the reforms) of the Second Vatican Council, said Robert Budka, 74, a retiree in Charlotte. (For the next pope), Id like someone with a more ecumenical spirit.
But Patricia Hartung said she was grateful to the 85-year-old pontiff for making it easier for Catholics to celebrate the Latin Mass the norm in Catholic parishes until Vatican II called for switching to each countrys native tongue.
I absolutely love the reverence and the sense of true worship that comes with the Latin ritual, the 59-year-old homemaker said.
Her hope once Benedicts resignation happens Feb. 28? Not a liberal pope, she said. We want one who will carry on in the Benedict-John Paul II tradition.
A gentle churchman
Later Monday, at a midday Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral in Dilworth, Jugis cast Benedict as a great shepherd who has battled creeping secularism by championing whats been dubbed the New Evangelization.
So many in our culture today either do not know Jesus or have forgotten about Jesus, Jugis told the 85 worshipers during his homily, or sermon. What a marvelous gift the Lord has given to us in our Holy Father.
Later, in a rare news conference, Jugis said Benedict exhibited kindness and humility when he and other bishops from the Southern United States had an audience with him last May.
It was a very beautiful meeting, said Jugis, who presides over 450,000 Catholics in a diocese that stretches from Greensboro to the Tennessee line.
Solari also cast the German-born Benedict as a humble leader who, despite a one-time reputation as John Paul IIs Rottweiller-like enforcer of doctrine, turned out to be a gentle, self-effacing churchman.
He also knew his strengths and weaknesses, Solari said, and one of those strengths was his prowess as a teacher especially via his encyclicals, or papal letters, on love and other subjects.
He wanted to be a professor, Solari said, and certainly his encyclicals and other writings are the works of a great teacher.
Church cloaked in so much secrecy
But some liberal-to-moderate Catholics such as Mike Rizer, who attends St. Peter Catholic Church in uptown Charlotte, had a catalogue of complaints about Pope Benedicts nearly eight-year papacy.
Besides following the lead of John Paul II in turning their back on the promises of Vatican II, Rizer said, Benedict did not do enough to repair the wounds caused by the many priests who sexually abused children.
This pope took more ownership of the pedophile crisis, but he didnt do near enough, said Rizer, an executive vice president at Wells Fargo. And the church is cloaked in so much secrecy and lack of transparency.
Also disappointing, Rizer said: The Vaticans ridiculous crackdown of an umbrella group of nuns in the United States for everything from not speaking out against homosexual behavior to allegedly refusing to give up on ordination of women to the priesthood.
They are the people living the Gospel, working with the poor and the homeless, Rizer said about the sisters.
Barney Offerman, 82 and another member of St. Peters, said Benedict has evolved from a one-time supporter of Vatican II to a pope of fear who came to consider debate a dangerous challenge to the authority of the pope and bishops.
He said he hopes the next pope finds a better balance between issues of personal and family morality including birth control, abortion and gay marriage, all of which the Catholic hierarchy opposes and issues of social and economic justice, which are larger truths today.
But Richard Mills, a self-employed businessman who attends St. Patrick Cathedral, also spoke for many Monday when he lauded Pope Benedict for helping forge a path along with John Paul II for the church to return to its ancient traditions.
I think hes put in plans that will keep the church on that right path, said Mills.
Hope for a younger pontiff
Some Catholics who spoke Monday said they hope the cardinals elect a younger pope this time. Others said they want Europe to finally give up its monopoly on the post.
St. Vincent de Paul parishioner Irene Schell, a homemaker in her 80s, said its up to God who the next pontiff will be. But she did have a suggestion: New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, an outgoing conservative and a voter and maybe vote-getter in the upcoming conclave to pick the next pope.
Dolan is head of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. Hes battled with President Barack Obama over provisions in the Affordable Care Act requiring coverage for contraceptives. But he also said a prayer at both the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte and the GOP gathering in Tampa, Fla.
At his news conference Monday, Bishop Jugis also floated Dolans name when asked whether it was time for a pope from Africa or South America two continents where Catholicism has seen tremendous growth.
Solari is skeptical that the College of Cardinals would elect an American pope at a time when the United States is such a dominant super power.
Would people think the American pope was pushing an American agenda? he said.
Whatever the divisions among those interviewed Monday, all agreed on one thing: They were more than a little surprised to hear that a pope had decided to resign.
Because usually they die, said Hartung, a member of St. Ann parish.
Solari is scheduled to be in Rome in March the month of the conclave for Benedictine business.
A fellow monk remarked: Itll certainly be an exciting time to be there, Solari said.
Staff writer Steve Lytle contributed