MANILA, Philippines — Filipinos in Asia's largest predominantly Roman Catholic nation attended Mass on Sunday with their church having no pope due to Benedict XVI's resignation – the first in 600 years – and prayed for the smooth rise of a successor to lead an embattled institution.
Benedict stunned the world when he announced Feb. 11 that he would resign, citing his age and frail health. His resignation, which took effect Thursday, ushered in a period known as "sede vacante," or "vacant see" – the transition period between papacies when a few Vatican officials take charge of running the church.
All cardinals worldwide have been summoned to the Vatican for a conclave to elect Benedict's successor. The new pope will inherit a church facing a tide of secularism in Europe, as well as clergy sex abuse and corruption scandals that have underscored the need to pick a formidable successor to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Churchgoers and the clergy in the Philippines said they were not worried by the temporary absence of a pope, but nevertheless felt the vacuum.
"There is something missing more or less in spirit," said the Rev. Joel Sulse, who celebrated Mass at the Santuario de San Antonio parish in an upscale residential enclave in Manila's Makati business district. "It's also a challenge. It's like when there is no leader, you really have to stand for your convictions."
Many churchgoers said their faith would endure at all times, expressing confidence that the Catholic church would soon have a new pontiff after a transition with its key doctrines intact.
"We know they will elect a pope, so there will still be a pope," said Ely Santos, who went to Mass with her husband and daughter at Christ the King church in a middle-class community in Manila's suburban Quezon city.
Sulse's parish and other Catholic churches across the Southeast Asian nation offered prayers for a hassle-free Vatican conclave of cardinals to elect a new pope.
Although Sulse noted that a new pontiff from the developing world may have a better grasp of problems afflicting many Catholics, he said Filipinos should pray for any pope who "can be strong yet loving."
"How we wish that, you know, there will be a pope coming from the third or fourth world," he said. Such a pope, he said, would be familiar with the realities in impoverished Catholic nations.
Such yearning for a strong successor to St. Peter's throne echoed from people from all walks of life. At the chandelier-lit church where Sulse said Mass, many traveled in SUVs from nearby exclusive residential enclaves to the air-conditioned parish building with beautifully manicured lawns.
Churchgoer Miguel Ma. Guerrero said the next pontiff should be a dynamic leader who can lead the church in a modern era beset by long-pestering problems such as poverty. Technology could help the church accomplish its mission, he said.
"He must be able to use his efforts and achievements to bring the Christian world to a modern state of which we are now experiencing because of the advent of technology," Guerrero said.
In another Manila church, in the working-class district of Baclaran, Catholics said they yearned for a pope who would be able to lead the younger generation onto the right path. One churchgoer said she wanted somebody like the late Pope John Paul II, who was welcomed by millions when he visited the Philippines in 1995.
"I have been praying for a new pope to be just like Pope John Paul II, who was close to the people and was very humble," said Charlene Bautista, an insurance broker.
For the first time, a Filipino cardinal, Antonio Luis Tagle, has been regarded as among the group of cardinals who have a chance of succeeding Benedict. Although considered a long shot, Tagle's inclusion among the so-called papabile, or papal candidates, has electrified many in the country, where past pontiffs were welcomed by millions like rock stars.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.