Pope Benedict XVI

Next pope will face tough challenges

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 February, 2013, 3:33am

The pope is one of the world's most revered figures. Followed by more than 1.1 billion Catholics across continents, the spiritual leader is a man of immense stature and profound influence. The position, however, is also one of the most demanding. Being the moral compass in an increasingly secular world means his actions and words are closely scrutinised. As head of the oldest institution in a fast-changing world, the pontiff often comes under fire for failing to handle scandals and modernise with the times. Despite the pope's power and prestige, the job is not easy.

So when 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI announced his decision to step down at the end of the month - the first pope to resign since the Middle Ages - the world reacted with shock and yet understanding. Relinquishing an office that one feels no longer fit to hold is a responsible act.

Outshone by his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II, who led the Holy See through turbulent times during his 26-year papacy, Benedict is struggling to leave a legacy after his eight-year rule. Seen as humble and a good listener, he may win praise from conservatives for steadfastly rejecting contraception, homosexuality and abortion.

The pope has also been provocative. He upset the Muslim world by quoting a condemnation of Islamic theology as "evil and inhuman". He also surprised many when he said before a tour to Aids-stricken Africa that the use of condoms "increases the problem". But he is more likely to be remembered for the way he handled the sex-abuse scandals that snowballed into the church's biggest crisis in modern times.

The most pressing issue before the Holy See is the choice of a successor. With the centre of faith shifting away from Europe, there are growing calls to pick the first non-European pontiff. Whether he can improve Sino-Vatican ties will be of particular concern to this part of the world. It is to be hoped that the new leader, to be picked from a conclave of cardinals next month, can take on the tough challenges ahead.