Memories of Pope Benedict XVI have been recalled by at least five people in Lehigh Acres who either knew him before he became pope and those who were privileged to meet him during his papacy.
Pope Benedict XVI announced last week that he was going to resign from the papacy at the end of the month. A conclave will meet to consider and select a new pope.
One of those people who probably remembered Pope Benedict the most is Mike Welch of Lehigh Acres. His is the former chairman and present member of the East County Water Control District and also represents Building Industry Issues LLCV of Southwest Florida.
Jessica Leigh Dallas, a Lehigh Acres student, received a special blessing from Pope Benedict last year during a Make A Wish visit to Rome to meet him.
Welch won easily over his opponent in the November election to remain on the ECWCD, which oversees stormwater, canals and culverts.
Welch said when he woke up last week on Monday, Feb. 11, he heard the news "blasting across the daily news" that Pope Benedict XVI had announced his abdication on his resignation as leader of the Catholic Church.
"With a heavy heart on the news, I was slowly reassured and happy for him. I was struck by this ultimate act of humility and selflessness. He thought of the church he loves and paved a way for future popes to leave office if they feel their health no longer makes them up to the job. Now as I think about the pope' surprising move, should I have been surprised at all?" he said.
The pope is the first in 600 years who has resigned his papacy and the first to resign for what he called his advanced years and ability to continue to be the head of the Catholic Church with 10.5 billion people around the world as members. The news surprised the world and especially those in the Catholic Church.
Welch said he lived and studied in Rome from 1985-89 and lived at the North American College, where American men are trained for service back in the U.S., Welch said Rome in those days was a lively place during the heights of excitement during John Paul's papacy. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, headed up a department or congregation in the Vatican.
"There were several times I encountered him although briefly. I often saw him walking to his home from the office in the early evening and he would say 'how are you tending to your studies?' and I had the fortune of the cardinal giving me a ride home once from the airport during a bus strike.
"I enjoyed going to his seminars and talks that he would give and often saw him around the Borgo Pio section of Rome not far from his residence.
Welch perceived the man as a kind, shy man with a bright smile. They were hallmarks.
"Years later in 2008 several people from Florida were invited to New York to meet the pope including other Lehigh residents including Eugen Borosch and his wife, Conchita, who was shown in a Citizen story with photo, kissing the Pope's ring with her husband looking on.
Welch said that he remembers standing in a receiving line at the United Nations with the others from Lehigh and that as they stood there, the man who loves is god and his church "greeted all of us" with a handshake.
"Even then many of us commented on his serenity and yet we all noted the great burden on his shoulders for a man of 80 at that time," Welch said.
Today the Pope is 85 and has said his advanced age has brought about his resignation. He said last week that he would not be appearing in public after Feb. 28, but that he would be living in an apartment in the Vatican.
Last fall, a middle high school student in Lehigh had the opportunity to meet Pope Benedict and receive a personal blessing from him. Jessica Leigh Dallas, 14, was a seventh grade student at Varsity Lakes Middle School.
The trip to Rome and the Vatican came about through the Make A Wish Foundation for children with serious and terminal illnesses. She is the daughter of Ben and Sharyn Dallas of Lehigh and had cancer. Both parents accompanied her on her trip to see the Pope, and her mother was at her side when the Pope offered her a special blessing.
Later, her mother said that thanks to God, her daughter is cancer free but still the doctors for follow-ups.
The family is very devout and attend Mass at St. Raphael's Church on Lee Blvd. Jessica and a brother, Michael, are active in Catholic Youth activities there.
Jessica had been asked what she would love to wish for, what would be the most important thing in the world to ask for and her answer took no time.
"I'd love to meet Pope Benedict," she told her parents. The information was passed on to the Make A Wish Foundation in Southwest Florida which made the trip and the meeting with Vatican officials possible.
Jessica was given the opportunity to meet the pope and she was the third in line to knell, kiss the pope's ring and the pope put his hands around her face and offered a special blessing for her from God with her mother as only one parent who could stand in line with a child.
Her mother also kissed Pope Benedict's ring. She told The Citizen in November that the pope put his hands around her daughter's face and offered a special blessing in another language than English for her.
Sharyn Dallas said they could tell how serious the pope's blessing was by just watching him as he prayed.
Jessica said she was excited that she couldn't wait to tell her friends at St. Raphael's Church about the special meeting and blessing.
Others like Eugen Borosch and his wife, Conchita said meeting the pope was a special blessing to them, too, one that they will never forget. Both Eugen and his wife are business leaders in Lehigh and own several properties, one of which is the Lehigh Town Center on the corner of Homestead and Alabama roads.
Catholics regard the pope as St. Peter's successor.
"The gifts that Pope Benedict XVI brought to the papacy was his penetrating intellect, his focus on preaching Jesus in these times and justice and peace in this troubled world. His ever sharp mind and conscience told him that it was time to step aside for a younger man.
"Recently I had just finished reading a letter he addressed to the Catholic world in 2008. In part he said, 'Openness to God makes us open toward our brothers and sisters and toward the understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity,'" Welch said.
"With that said, why should I have been so surprised that Benedict XVI resigned. He did so for a Church he loves so much," Welch said.
When Pope Benedict steps down next Thursday, he will have been the 265th leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The resignation will take place at 8 p.m. Rome time and he will be stepping down two months before his 86th birthday after serving for nearly eight years as pontiff after succeeding John Paul II.