Rochester, N.Y.-- On Monday evening, Sister Dr. Nancy Hawkins started her theology class at the St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry with a discussion of the biggest news to come out of the Vatican in recent years-- Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.
On Monday morning, Pope Benedict announced that he would resign at the end of February. He cited his age and health as the reasons why. The news was historic and significant because a pope has not resigned from the papacy in nearly 600 years.
"Today is a day that will go down in the history books," Sister Hawkins explained. "I think the whole world was surprised."
As the shock of the announcement settled, the question turned to who will become the next pope.
"This is a tough time we're living in," Sister Hawkins said. "In the church and also in humanity. Across the board people need healing. They are anxious and I think they need a leader that will give them comfort."
Many have considered Pope Benedict XVI to be one of the most conservative popes in the last several decades; however, Sister Hawkins doesn't think there will be too much a discrepancy between Pope Benedict and his successor.
"There is a difference between being traditional and 'conservative'," she explained. "There are a core set of beliefs that are found in the creed that we believe as Catholics, therefore, is going to be supported by the next pontiff. There are things that are small 't' traditions and those things change over time. There are things that are large 'T' traditions-- for example that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. Those things don't change."
Jim Fien is a student at St. Bernard's. He's enrolled in the Master of Pastoral Studies program and is studying to be a deacon.
As a lifelong Catholic, he says he was also surprised by the Pope's announcement. As for what's next, Fien believes the church is at an important point.
"I think there is a lot of change that can happen with the church and we're coming to a crossroads," he said. "There is a lot of growth in the Catholic Church around the world."
He believes the new pope will have to address the needs of a worldwide church. Catholicism is growing fastest in Africa, South America and Central America. Fien believes the new pope would have to keep this in mind when leading the church.
Also, Fien believes the church needs to find a way to connect with the younger generation of Catholics.
"You have the needs of the traditional Catholics and then you have the needs of the younger Catholics," Fien explained. "They are the future of the church. I don't think there will be any broad-based changes [with the new pope]. I think some people would like to see that, but I think the Catholic Church changes slowly and will make those changes in a timely fashion."
Fien feels that in the U.S., there is a gap of younger people falling away with the church. He hopes the new pope will be able to bridge that gap.
Sister Hawkins hopes whoever is selected to become the next pope is someone that will be reach and appeal to a people across religions.
“I hope he would be able to minister to people no matter where they are in their lives or what they believe,” she said. “He needs to be able to communicate with all the people in his flock, whether he agrees with them or not. Hopefully, he’ll be able to do that.”
The College of Cardinals could meet at the Vatican to begin the papal selection process as early as March.