The Rev. Wayne Campbell found more parishioners filling the pews at St. Monica's Church in Moraga for 9 o'clock Mass on Monday morning, after Catholics awoke to the historic news that the first pope in six centuries was resigning.
"It's such a startling event, they wanted to connect with other Catholics," Campbell said.
Pope Benedict's announcement shocked Bay Area Catholics, but it also gave hope to some of the faithful that his replacement might bring a more progressive and global view to a church that is struggling with membership and scandal.
While Benedict's conservative positions on such hot-button Bay Area issues as gay marriage, contraception and women's equality are supported by mostly traditional, older Catholics, they are out of touch with others such as Margie Chiechi.
"They need someone to come in now whose thinking needs to be a lot fresher," said Chiechi, 62, of San Jose, who attends Mass on Sundays and whose pets wear medals of St. Francis of Assisi. "First of all, I have a hard time with the church not accepting women as equals. It's like women are running the church, but there's a priest behind the altar. We're always one step behind."
Pope Benedict XVI has been accused of trying to bring back the church to a pre-Vatican II era and criticized for his handling of the sex abuse scandal that has plagued the church. Recently, he has delivered speeches attacking the legal recognition of same-sex marriages and the ordination of women to the priesthood. Last summer, the Vatican appointed San Francisco's new archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone, who has been a leader in the legal fight against same-sex marriage.
Although many Catholics disagree with the pope's more conservative positions, Campbell said, he's been a strong moral leader for the church.
"In an age when moral values are very blurred or politicized or compromised by the prevailing winds, he's very consistent," the Moraga pastor said. "He's a very humble man and I think this stepping down is an amazing expression of his humility."
The Rev. Joseph Boenzi, professor at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, said that if liberal Catholics spent more time listening to Pope Benedict, they might have given him more credit for his openness and his ability to listen to other viewpoints.
"Would they agree totally? Probably not," said Boenzi, who spends half the year in Rome and listens to Vatican Radio on iTunes when he's home. "But I think they would notice his respect and understanding and his desire to engage."
The Rev. Peter Pabst, president of Sacred Heart Nativity Schools near downtown San Jose that serve low-income, mostly Latino students, praised the pope for "his courage for saying it's time for a change" and looks forward to a pope who is more progressive.
"I would like, for example, to see a pope who would say that divorced and remarried people can go to communion again," Pabst said. "Let's figure out a way to be inclusive and have a spot at the table for everybody."
The chance that the church might elect a more liberal pontiff is unlikely, says Thomas Cattoi, associate professor of Christology at Santa Clara University's Jesuit School of Theology. Pope Benedict appointed many of the cardinals who will be choosing his successor. One third of the cardinals are Italian, and none is from the Bay Area. Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles diocese, who was recently stripped of most of his duties because of his handling of the priest sex abuse scandal there, will still have a vote for the next pope.
"I am not going to tell you there will be major breaks in the church's policy on pretty much anything," Cattoi said Monday. "I doubt that very much. But there are surprises, like this one today."
It's been 600 years since a pope resigned, and Cattoi speculates that the pope may be setting a precedent for future popes to resign rather than muddle through their final, ailing years.
"The pope has been very conservative," Cattoi said, "but his decision to step down is, paradoxically, very modern."
His resignation also might open the possibility that the new pope could come from Asia, Africa or Latin America, where the church is growing.
While the Bay Area may consider itself more liberal, Latino immigrants are bringing their conservative Catholic roots to California with them.
"In a way,'' Cattoi said, "the church will demographically by default become slightly more conservative."
Rose Jimenez, 67, who works as a secretary for Sacred Heart Nativity Schools, says there is a generational divide among her Latino friends about Pope Benedict.
"If you speak to the younger generation, they would say he was too strict," she said. "I'm older, so I'm more of the old school."
Still, she said, she would like the church to allow priests to marry and women to serve as priests.
She and her Latino neighbors still have a soft spot for Pope Benedict's predecessor.
"We'd like to get someone much like Pope John Paul. He was very charismatic," she said. "Everyone loved him."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.