The surprise departure of Pope Benedict is leading Catholic worshipers and scholars in Minnesota to consider the possibility of change in a church that is beset with serious challenges.

After a Monday morning prayer service at the Cathedral of St. Paul, Philip Schweitzer, a St. Paul resident, said that waning membership illustrates that the church "undoubtedly" needs to change. But "change won't happen easily, simply because it's an aristocracy," said Schweitzer, 77, a lifelong Catholic. "The pope picks the cardinals and the cardinals pick the pope."

"I just come to church to worship God," he said.

Church leadership in Minnesota, home to about 1.1 million Catholics, has been strongly shaped by Benedict, who has appointed four of Minnesota's six diocesan bishops since becoming pope in 2005.

"I am saddened by the thought of losing his strong leadership for the church," Rev. John Nienstedt, whom Benedict named archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said in a statement. "When my fellow bishops and I met with him last March, his pastoral reflections about each of our dioceses -- and this local church in particular -- were insightful as well as inspirational. I pray for God's healing grace for him at this time."

While the Catholic Church remains the largest denomination nationally and in Minnesota, its membership has declined sharply since 2000. Johan van Parys, director of liturgy at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, said Benedict's successor will be elected "during a difficult time in our history." When he was growing up in Belgium, about 90 percent of the country's people were practicing Catholics, Van Parys said. Today, it's closer to 10 percent.

"What we presumed, namely, being the majority, is no longer true. Now we are the minority," Van Parys said. "It's a great opportunity, but at the same time, it's quite a shift."

The Rev. Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches, said she was "stunned" by the news. "I had not heard anything from anyone that suggested anything like this," she said.

She suspects that a new leader won't disrupt the Catholic Church's relationships with other faith groups.

"That commitment to ecumenism will hold," she said. Because the College of Cardinals, the papal electoral body, "holds similar views ... to this pope," Chemberlin said, "it's hard for me to imagine that they would feel the need to -- that God would move them to -- take a big turn here."

Strengthen the church

Supporters of Benedict's conservative leadership praised his writings, including an encyclical about love, and said they appreciated his efforts to uphold and strengthen the church's core beliefs.

But others said his legacy would be stained by the clerical abuse scandals in Minnesota and other areas that have rocked the church.

St. Paul lawyer Jeff Anderson who has repeatedly sued the church and the Vatican on behalf of victims of alleged sexual abuse, called the pope's resignation "an affirming step in the right direction." But he said he doubts that the cardinals, "who subscribe to a culture of secrecy and obedience," will elect a pope dedicated to "transparency and accountability."

"It's not very promising," Anderson said. "But it's not hopeless."

The church has also found itself embroiled in controversial political battles, including the proposed gay marriage ban shot down by Minnesota voters last year despite the church's strong support. That campaign illustrated the church's difficulty in translating its deepest beliefs about sexuality, marriage and equality, said Prof. Don Briel, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

"What has to change, clearly, is that the church must articulate more credibly and effectively what it believes," he said.

But Briel cautioned against expecting a new pope to bring in a new agenda, as a newly elected U.S. president might, saying that would be "a misreading both of the office and of the church itself."

Photographer Richard Sennott contributed to this report. Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168