It was a move few saw coming. The process that followed the passing of Pope John Paul II which led to the inauguration of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI is fresh in many minds. Indeed it was only seven years ago. And with today's announcement that Benedict will become the first Pope to resign from his position in 600 years there will be consternation over a constructive reign seemingly cut short. Yet, the precedent set could pave the way for genuine progression in the Catholic Church.
Deteriorating health is being cited as the key reason behind the 85 year old's decision to step down which perhaps is the most telling sign of the demands and expectations placed on one of the most high-profile positions in the world. This after all was a Pope leading in a time of immense technological change. He will be known as the first Holy Father to have a Twitter account, leading his followers in an age of instant news and analysis. As a Catholic, I have watched him reign over his church with awkward certainty. The final days of John Paul II called for strong leadership and perhaps a return to basics that many worshipers wanted to see.
Benedict has largely been successful in providing a reinforcement narrative that attempted to emboss the church's ideals whilst appearing to be progressive.
Yet scandals, not least the child sex abuse cases on both sides of the Atlantic damaged confidence in his leadership. Today, as Christianity and Islam hold court for followers on a global scale, Catholicism is in desperate need to be made relevant again. If not through the process of reinvention, than at the very least the chance to broaden the reach to more moderate and liberal-leaning followers.
Today's move will cause shock-waves globally and lead to some to question the real motives behind the decision. With no prior warnings to deteriorating health issued before, speculation will be rife about splits in the movement and a disquiet for change. Attention will turn shortly to the list of viable successors, and while Benedict has built a strong core of European cardinals who would be ready to succeed, the time seems right to look for a leader from Africa or Latin America who will challenge perceptions of the religion being inwardly Westernised. Both continents have strong Catholic take-up, and a new Pope from those regions could unlock potential not seen for several decades. Failing a lead on the global perspective, the church would do well to appoint a man who can sit in the role for a decade or two. A younger figure, who can build a vision to work to for the long-haul.
Benedict will leave his position with respect, but perhaps will be judged as a solid caretaker between the last and next defining leader of the Catholic faith. All eyes will now be glued to Vatican City as for the second time in under a decade, smoke will rise over Rome.