Editorial: Opportunity for church

It seems somewhat seedy that within hours of Pope Benedict XVI announcing his retirement bookmakers were offering odds on who his replacement would be.

Yet the Catholic Church has an opportunity here.

An opportunity to elect someone vibrant, charismatic, young (say 60-something), non-European and perhaps a little bit radical.

All of the things the present pontiff isn't.

To be fair to the 85-year-old Pope though, he apparently didn't want the job in the first place. He'd been angling to retire, not step up to the top job aged 78.

And he came in at a difficult time, particularly in relation to the church and sex abuse of children, something that has still not been adequately dealt with.

It says something that his reign will be most remembered for the way it ended, with a retirement.

Since 1415 all popes have died in office, so this decision is indeed courageous. It also means that for the first time in almost 600 years a pope will be able to seek advice from a former pope. In some quarters, this isn't seen as a necessarily good thing.

There are challenges for the next pope.

The number of Catholics remains strong at 1.2 billion worldwide, a growth of 50 million since 2007 (so says Wikipedia). Most of this growth has come from Africa, but in Oceania it rose a surprising 11 per cent in that time.

In New Zealand there are 508,000 Catholics (2006 Census), 7880 in South Canterbury. But the number of priests is an issue. In New Zealand, a priest in every small parish and teaching brothers and nuns are long gone. Today the ranks of priests are bolstered from overseas, with lay people called upon to do more.

And in a changing world, the Catholic Church hasn't changed sufficiently with it.

And we're not even talking gay marriage here.

Women priests, artificial birth control, abortion and a celibate priesthood are modern issues that have largely been shelved.

The appointment of a pope from outside Europe would show a willingness to change.

Whether the church takes that opportunity will be seen after what has to be the most riveting election process in the world, when white smoke plays out over the Sistine Chapel.

The Timaru Herald