One of the most traditional of popes, who by resigning Thursday commits one of the most untraditional papal acts in 600 years, leaves a church divided about his legacy and the direction his successor should take.
The 85-year-old Pope Benedict's simple explanation that he's leaving because his failing physical and spiritual energies are not adequate to the task of leading the world's 1.2 billion Catholics is being weighed against Vatican leaks, a raft of Italian tabloid headlines and speculation about high-level rivalries and corruption.
At Benedict's farewell address Wednesday before an audience of 150,000, he spoke of both his papacy's joys and "rough waters," when "the Lord seemed to sleep."
At noon Thursday — 8 p.m. in Rome — Benedict's eight-year papacy officially ends.
By next week, the campaign for a new pope will be underway. In about two weeks some 116 cardinals from around the world will be locked away in conclave in the Sistine Chapel, where they will cast rounds of secret ballots until one of them receives two-thirds of the votes and becomes the new pope.
Vatican correspondents and observers say unofficial campaigns, news leaks and political attacks are all part of the gamesmanship of the conclave. Yet, for many Colorado Catholics, the pope's resignation and the selection of his successor in this atmosphere of turmoil — from clergy sex-abuse scandals, top-level coverups, and the papal intrigues and stolen documents dubbed "Vatileaks" — are gut-wrenching experiences.
"When I found out about the resignation, it reminded me of how sad and bleak everything was when Pope John Paul II died," said Denver Catholic Anna Maria Basquez. "Did I pray for (Pope Benedict) enough? Did any of us pray for him enough? I believe in many ways people have missed the chance to be fair to this man."
The Pew Research Center reported this week that 74 percent of U.S. Catholics surveyed in February had a favorable opinion of Benedict. Pope John Paul II, Benedict's doctrinal twin, was consistently rated favorably by more than 90 percent of U.S. Catholics.
Basquez's faith in the pope remains unshaken. The 38-year-old freelance writer sings in the cathedral choir, founded and runs Denver Catholic Speed Dating, coordinates an unofficial after-church dinner — The Last Supper Club — and made two trips overseas to see Benedict during his relatively short papacy. She's visited his birthplace in Germany and is writing a book about her Benedict-centered 47-day, six-country pilgrimage .
"I don't think I'll feel quite the same about the next pope," she said. "I felt so close to Benedict."
Basquez says she's experienced firsthand "the heavens bowing" to this pope.
During World Youth Day in Spain in August 2011, an estimated 2 million pilgrims endured sweltering heat followed by a sudden, violent thunderstorm.
"The water was turning everything to mud and making mush of my small roller suitcase that held 90 rosaries for his blessing. Umbrellas and things were blowing from one campsite to the next," Basquez said. "One moment we were cowering and attempting to take shelter from the storm, the next, when Pope Benedict began praying, the storm completely ceased. The moment he was done, and I saw his hands leave the Eucharist, the first drop of rain to start the next storm fell on my forehead."
Colorado's three Catholic dioceses report more than 800,000 formally enrolled Catholics, but the Pew Research Center's landmark 2008 survey estimated the number of self-identifying Catholics in the state at closer to 1 million.
Lapsed Boulder Catholic Chris Burnett said conservative Benedict's attempt to turn back the clock and "reform the reforms" of the Second Vatican Council, which sought modernization of church rites and a greater role for the laity, was the final indication he said he needed that the church was determined to avoid any social progress.
"Mankind should get a little smarter each century, but the church acts as if people — well, church leaders — had all the answers a thousand years ago. They didn't. They still don't," Burnett said.
Burnett said the Catholic Church was meant to be the universal body of Christ on Earth — accepting even of those not blindly obedient to a human hierarchy.
He expects the next pope to be as conservative as the past two — they have selected all the cardinals electing the next pope.
Joe Lewandowski, a state worker in Durango, said scandals and political storms ultimately destroyed his faith in the church he grew up in during the 1960s and Vatican II. His devoutly Catholic parents sent him to Catholic schools for 12 years — education and character formation for which he said he's still grateful. He also served as an altar boy.
"The scandal of pedophile clergy has gone on for years and years ... and is appalling and totally inexcusable," Lewandow-ski said. "You look at an institution that's a bunch of old white men who are out of touch with what's going on in homes, in families, in the gay community. To exclude women from leadership roles ultimately will be the death of the Catholic Church."
Only 33 percent of Catholics believe Benedict did a good or excellent job addressing the sex-abuse scandal. And 63 percent said he did a fair or poor job.
Only 41 percent of the 75 million U.S. Catholics attend Mass at least once a week, the Pew Research Center reported.
While 51 percent of Catholics say they want the next pope to "maintain traditional positions," almost half, 46 percent, say they want him to "move in new directions." Most U.S. Catholics, 58 percent, think it would be a good idea for priests to marry, according to the Pew report.
And 60 percent of U.S. Catholics think it would be a good thing if the next pope hailed from a developing region of the world.
"Catholicism is not a one-size-fits-all religion," Basquez said. "It is not made to conform to what popular culture or popular pressure might be appearing to push."
Electa Draper: 303-954-1276, email@example.com or twitter.com/electadraper
The Archdiocese of Denver will celebrate a Holy Hour and Mass of Thanksgiving for the Benedict's papacy beginning at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at 1530 Logan Street.