Rarely can news ever be truly surprising. However, unless The Guardian liveblog (among others) was mislead, the announcement today of Pope Benedict's retirement was a genuine surprise.
Pundits, politicians and preachers now flood the airwaves to provide their views and construct a narrative of the pontif's reign. What the talking heads cover is the character of the individual, I'd like to look forward and consider the characteristics of the next Pope.
1) Ecumenical in outlook
The current pope, from a UK perspective, played a key role in either seeing off or accelerating divisions within the Church of England by enabling the creation of the Ordinariate. While it may have taken the heat out of an element of the CofE's internal theological politics, from the outside it seemed like some nifty poaching. The Catholic Church, alongside all churches in Europe, are forced to consider their place in a truly multicultural Europe. The new pope should be willing to facilitate further talks and public activities to demonstrate to the world key points of unity among Christians.
B) Global in Outlook - Recent popes have come from Europe. Statistics show mass growth in faith among people outside of Europe. Therefore maybe it's time for someone from outside of the churches traditional geographical power base to come forward and reflect new global patterns of worship and growth.
C) focused on young people - the Catholic Church institutional has a challenging history when it comes to young people. What is less well covered are the global young people's days that fill stadia with thousands of young Catholics for prayer and worship. If the pope is to nudge the church from a difficult past to a positive future then they must take clear action to tackle abuse while also ensuring today's young people are invested in and recognised in.
D) a communicating pope - leadership within the church is a difficult situation. From the experiences of the current pope it is also clear that fresh faces can be difficult to bring forward. It would be fascinating to see, in an age of social media where spokespeople are more fluid, flexible and fast moving what attitudes to communication the new pope brings.
E) a liberating pope - finally it would be excellent to see a pope whose faith developed through struggle. The catholic faith is at its clearest when speaking out on issues of social justice. This can only come to life through lived experience and listening to the experiences of others. As both head of a faith group and head of state, he will be in a near unique position to bring to the poorest and most powerful a message of liberation.
( The one big issue I haven't covered is the role of multifaith because I haven't seen how it has been done previously )
The new pope will have a physical and virtual inbox overflowing with issues. I'll be interested to see what characteristics they bring and what issues they truly take to heart.
Fascinating times ...