At 73, the Rev. Raymond O'Neill has lived through the election of seven popes. With the recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, he will soon witness another.
Like many people, O'Neill, the pastor of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Spring Hill, was surprised when the 85-year old pope announced to the world last month that he would resign, citing his "advanced age." A voluntary resignation by a pope hasn't occurred since the middle ages, when Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415.
"It certainly was a surprise," O'Neill said. "I think that was everybody's reaction. This was first time in 600 years. We weren't expecting it."
The Rev. Craig Morley, pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Brooksville, Hernando County's oldest Catholic parish, said he was surprised, but not stunned, when he heard the announcement last month.
"He's always said if he got too old he'd step down, so I knew it was a possibility," Morley said, "I said, 'Oh, wow, that's interesting, but it doesn't really affect us locally.' Then I thought of the significance of it. It hasn't happened for hundreds of years."
Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg spoke at a news conference in St. Petersburg shortly after the announcement, expressing his support of the pope's decision.
"I have had the unique privilege in my own priestly life to come to know Josef Ratzinger well," Lynch said, "He said shortly after his election as our pope that he would resign if his health ever would not permit him to fulfill his responsibilities as he saw fit. I believed him then."
The bishop added words of praise.
"I repeat what I often said at the time of his election: The church was given a leader with an incredible intellect, a pastor's heart and a very patient listener," he said. "I sensed when we briefly reminisced about our work together last May that I was saying goodbye."
Lynch also thanked Ratzinger.
"I am happy for him that he is going to spend his last days on earth at peace, in prayer and study. I shall always thank him for his love of the church," Lynch said.
Morley belives Ratzinger was a "very personable pope."
"When you look at him," he said, "you see a grandpa. I say that in a good sense. There are pictures of him with kids. I'll just always remember the love that he had for the people."
O'Neill said Ratzinger was a leading theologian in the Catholic Church and noted the books he's written. He said he will remember the pope for his steadiness.
"I know that he's gotten some criticism from some of the controversies that are going on in the church, but still, I think he's been very good," the priest said. "I think history will judge him well. I really think so."
Neither O'Neill nor Morley has any idea who the next pope will be, but each has hopes for what he will bring to the church.
"I guess some circles are talking about needing a good manager, because the church is all around the world, so it needs a good manager," O'Neill said. "Although I would argue that Benedict has been a good manager, I know some people may not agree with me, but that would be my opinion."
Morley said the next pope will be a holy man, a man of God and that the cardinals who choose him will be divinely inspired in their choice.
"It will be the right person at the right time," Morley said. "You're not going to be elevated to a position if you're not what's needed. John Paul and Benedict are about the same ilk, the same cut of cloth. (The new pope) will probably be along the lines of Benedict."
Morley thinks the next pope will be traditional.
"The great thing about the Catholic Church, it doesn't matter who's at the helm, the beliefs of the church are always the same," he said. "One person can't go in and change them. It's a continuation. That's why the church is so slow to do things. They know it will be in effect forever."
O'Neill said he is personally "middle of the road and leaning slightly to the left."
"That's what I hope for in the next pope — middle of the road, leaning slightly progressive," he said. "But the moral issues aren't going to change — birth control or the church's position on gay marriage or celibacy for the priests. It's hard to put one's finger on what would be more progressive."
Both priests respect Ratzinger's decision to resign and don't think it will set a negative precedent.
"The fact that he stepped down because of his health, that says a lot about the man," Morley said. "He could have stayed there for the power, the prestige, the being pope. But he knew it was the best thing for the church that he step down, so he's going to fade off into nothing and allow the church to continue on."
"I was thinking the other day, in our society we have politicians who are very ambitious when it comes to the political season, and there can be tremendous put-downs of the opposition. And yet here is Benedict the 16th, who held the No. 1 position in the Catholic Church throughout the world, and yet he was able to walk away from that. That, for me, is the sign of a deeply spiritual man — a man who's in touch with God."