The Vatican’s own newspaper is reporting that the Pope made his decision to resign a few months ago. But he didn’t do it then, he’s done it now.
Today is Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras in certain parts of the world. It’s a day of feasting and full of symbolism. And tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, Lent, the start of the traditional fasting period, the most important time in the Christian calendar.
Benedict’s XVI’s resignation on Feb 28 will be followed by the Conclave and vote for a new Pope, which will run into mid-March. And then Easter Sunday itself at the end of March will surely see a new Pope on the balcony at St Peters.
All of this matters because it mirrors the Bible story of Easter being a time of rebirth and renewal, echoing the death and resurrection of Jesus. In choosing this period to ask the Catholic hierarchy to pick a new leader, is this Pope suggesting that it’s time for the church also to renew itself in some way?
Many observers would say that’s most unlikely, given the highly conservative traditions and views of Benedict.
But there is now a genuinely strong argument that a new Pope should come from Latin America or Africa, where there are the biggest congregations. They would love a Pope who’s one of their own. And they would say it’s their turn.
Alternatively, it’s another European, perhaps Italian, pontiff and a continuation of the current way of doing things.
There’s also a very good argument that the church should go through a period of renewal and perhaps even reform. After all, this Easter will be exactly two years since the paedophile priest scandals which fractured the church all over the world.
At the height of the crisis, at Easter, Pope Benedict chose to speak only tangentially about this issue some churches in different countries decided they would take steps to allow the police to investigate child abuse, while others didn’t. The Vatican was accused of failing in its leadership.
Just last week the Irish government published a long awaited report into a different scandal of the Magdalene Laundries – forced labour of girls and women organised by Catholic Nuns.
Again, there’s been nothing from the Vatican in the way of acknowledgement or apology.
It’s an entirely open question whether a new Pope from another continent would want to address some of the contradictions between civil law (that you and I answer to) and Canon, or church, law which the Vatican sees as more appropriate in dealing with offenders (an apology and no punishment).
And perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect nominees for the papacy to want to take on any of these things.
But given all the problems the church has had over the last few years, and questions over its relevance, it’s bound to be the case that all these things get raised again over the next few weeks.
And certainly now seems to be an ideal time to push for change among those who say Catholicism needs to adapt.