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Catholics in region get to share in 'bittersweet' moment with pope

| Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Altar server Alina Jacob, 12, of North Huntingdon Township waits for the procession to begin mass on February 24, 2013 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in North Huntingdon Township. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
A portrait of Pope Benedict XVI hangs on the wall of the church lobby, as it does in other catholic churches, on February 24, 2013 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in North Huntingdon Township. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Father Leonard Stoviak see parishoners off after mass on February 24, 2013 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in North Huntingdon Township. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Lois Woodcock of Turtle Creek holds a commemorative prayer card after mass on February 24, 2013 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in North Huntingdon Township. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review

Growing up in Munhall in the 1940s, Gerry Seaman knew that when the church bells rang at St. Michael's, she was to stop and recite the Angelus, a traditional Catholic prayer that she and other local Catholics said Sunday to connect with Pope Benedict XVI.

“Every time the bells tolled, we said the Angelus,” said Seaman of North Huntingdon, who attended Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, where parishioners recited the prayer in solidarity with the pope.

It was “a really nice gesture,” she said.

Benedict, who will step down Thursday, prayed the last Angelus of his pontificate on Sunday before a crowd that the Vatican estimated at more than 200,000. Large video screens were set up for those who could not get close enough to see the pope.

“It's a prayer that everyone learns over the years,” said St. Elizabeth parishioner Jerry Connelly of North Huntingdon. “I grew up in the Catholic church, and you learn this in your catechism.”

Benedict, who succeeded Pope John Paul II in 2005 and will turn 86 in April, stunned Catholics when he announced Feb. 11 that he lacked the strength to fulfill his duties and would resign.

“I think a lot of people will look at his last prayer as bittersweet,” said Darlene Fozard Weaver, an associate professor at Duquesne University and director of the Center for the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. “A great number of Catholics will see it as sad, but it's hard not to feel excitement about what's to come.”

“It is a momentous event,” said the Rev. Leonard W. Stoviak, pastor of St. Elizabeth. “This is history.”

The Angelus, which tells of the incarnation of Christ and includes the recitation of three Hail Marys, traditionally was prayed three times a day, at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., Stoviak said. Farmers working in the fields would stop and pray when the church bells rang, he said.

Reciting the prayer they learned as children brought back fond memories for St. Elizabeth parishioners, including Lois Woodcock, 86, who recalled saying the prayer as a youngster growing up in Turtle Creek.

“It was very nice,” said Woodcock, and was made special by saying it in solidarity with the retiring pope.

The pope has been in the hearts and minds of many local Catholics.

“We've been praying for him at every Mass, and I've been preaching about him in my homilies,” said the Rev. Terry O'Conner, pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux parish in Munhall, which also recited the prayer.

Parishioners at St. James Parish in Sewickley said “special prayers for the pope and the cardinals who will pick his successor,” said the Rev. Thomas Burke, pastor.

The pope is leaving office with many U.S. Catholics wanting change, a new poll by the Pew Research Center said. Most said the next pope should allow priests to marry, the poll showed. And 6 in 10 Catholics say it would be good if the next pontiff hails from a developing region such as South America, Asia or Africa.

At the same time, many Catholics said they appreciate the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. While about half of U.S. Catholics said the next pope should “move the church in new directions,” the other half said the new pope should “maintain the traditional positions of the church.”

Benedict drew large crowds during a visit to the United States five years ago — 46,000 for his first public Mass here as pope in Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., then 60,000 to a Mass at Yankees Stadium in New York.

On Wednesday, Benedict's final general audience will take place in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican said. He'll take one last ride in the Popemobile around the square to greet the more than 30,000 people expected to attend.

On Thursday, he'll personally greet all the cardinals in Rome — those who live there and those who have come in recent days. There will be no speech. He'll leave the Vatican shortly before 5 p.m. and be taken by helicopter to the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo.

The conclave of cardinals that will pick Benedict's successor will set a date to meet after he has left Rome, Vatican officials said.

Staff writer Joe Napsha contributed to this report. Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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