This article is written for publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel on February 20th 2013.
You don't need to be a Catholic, or even a religious person, to have been surprised at Pope Benedict's decision to stand down from the Papacy. It is an almost unique event in the 2,000 year history of the oldest continuing institution in the Western World. Longer lasting than the Roman, Mayan or British empires, older than the oldest church or chapel in the world, with a history more extensive and more colourful than any nation or culture, the Papacy has had a unique role already in the history of the planet.
Including Benedict XVI there have been 266 Popes. Fifteen, beginning with St Peter, were martyrs, executed for the faith. Some were men of great Holiness, such as John XXIII (died 1962), others were also great scholars, such as Pope Leo the Great (died 461). Some Popes were great reformers - such as Pope Gregory XIII (died 1585) who introduced the Gregorian Calendar which most of the world uses today. Some Popes were great patrons of the Arts, such as Sixtus IV (died 1484) after whom the Sistine Chapel is named.
Throughout its history, the Papacy has changed and adapted in an extraordinary manner - the first bishop of Rome, St Peter, was a Jewish fisherman, far from home, who led a small and persecuted church. The papacy became by steps a key institution in the later Roman empire;
the unifying force in the culture of medieval Europe and the centre of a powerful empire itself; a driver of missionary activity; in the 19th Century, a shrunken power and prisoner of new nations; in the twentieth century, the tiniest state in the world, yet a vigorous promoter of human rights and social justice.
It amuses and saddens me when I hear people speaking of the need for the Church to bring itself up to date, to catch up with the modern world, and to make changes which are said to be essential for the Church's future. Pope Benedict - so this argument goes - has been inflexible, traditionalist, old-fashioned, and resistant. A new Pope, they hope, will allow women priests, approve of gay marriage, remove the ban on abortion and much more.
Well, they are entitled to their opinions, but not to their ignorance of facts.
First, let us look back in history and see which Popes were most "up to date". Certainly not the martyrs, who bravely stood alone against the power of the day. Probably not the saintly Popes, who are often held in contrast to the times in which they lived. No, the most "modern" Popes were perhaps those of the 16th Century - Pope Julius I (died 1513), the Warrior Pope, "Il Papa Terribile" - who pursued an aggressive foreign policy - he was certainly a man of his time. And his predecessor, Pope Alexander III (died 1503), who had multiple mistresses and bribed his way to the Papacy - he too conformed to the age. We judge them harshly nowadays - not because they failed to keep up with their times, but on the contrary, because they did not resist them.
And Pope Benedict XVI, this gentle scholar, man of charm and sensitivity, now become frail and elderly, is so often judged harshly by the media of today, because he follows the way of the saints and martyrs, rather than the course of the aggressively ambitious. In his humble and courageous decision to step down, we see the evidence of his desire to serve and not to rule.
At Sacred Heart Church, Jasper Street, Hanley on Friday 22nd February at 12 noon, there will be a Mass of Thanksgiving for the Pontificate of Benedict XVI.