Monday morning’s announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he is to resign from the role at 7pm (Irish time) on February 28 caught all but his closest confidants by surprise.
While his brother, Fr Georg Ratzinger, a priest in Germany, is reported to have known the decision was coming for the last year, it is also reported that Pope Benedict’s close Vatican aides were totally taken by surprise.
So sudden came the news that while the world is rushing to pay tribute and assess the pope’s relatively short time in office, there is little consensus on what the future now holds for the leader of the world’s Catholics.
The banner headlines on every news website and newspaper in the wake of the resignation, however, underline that while religion may feel it is being sidelined in secular, modern life, there is still a very important role to be played in world affairs by whoever is elevated to the See of St. Peter.
Not only is that role of immense importance to all Catholics, but, as has been seen during Pope Benedict’s international involvement in recent years, it is also of world political importance - he has met with President Barack Obama, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Britain’s prime minister David Cameron, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas; and has spoken out on world issues including the war in Iraq.
And this is why the identity of the new pontiff will affect more than just those who look to him as a religious leader.
For the new pope, who will be elected next month, there will also be hugely significant theological and moral issues for him to show leadership on - same sex marriage, the ordination of women, celibacy, and the issue of child abuse has not gone away.
Speculation has begun as to who the next pope may be. One school of thought is that Pope Benedict’s successor may come from South America or Africa. South America is now home to almost half of the world’s Catholics. While Africa boast just under 13% of the world Catholic population it is growing quickly.
However, which ever nation provides the next pontiff the one thing that is certain is that he will be a man who must be prepared to take on some of the most significant questions facing the world Catholic community.