A shock resignation and momentous days ahead

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I'm en route to Heathrow for a flight to Rome which as a Catholic and as a journalist I'm shocked to be making. I was on the phone to a friend with whom I worked at the English College in Rome as a student when the news about Pope Benedict came through. Neither of us could believe it. So, I'm reflecting on my memories of the man who is the first Pope to resign since 1415.

Pope Benedict XVI prays during a mass in London in 2010
Pope Benedict XVI prays during a mass in London in 2010 Credit: Reuters

I first met him when he visited the Catholic chaplaincy in Cambridge where I was studying. It was 1989 - and he was then Cardinal Ratzinger - head of the much feared Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. His reputation went before him - he was the Pope's Rottweiler. So I had little idea what to expect. But if he wielded a big stick, he spoke softly. Here was a shy, quietly spoken academic - a million miles from the character of John Paul II, the rock star Pope who could smooth the most hardened atheist with his charisma.

So along with many other Catholics - his election as Pope after the long reign of John Paul II was a shock too. I was in Rome for his enthronement, the nickname Pappa Ratzi ringing through the massed crowds. Catholics around the world looked at the figure of an already elderly man and known conservative, traditionalist and waited to see in which direction he would lead the Church.

And the storm of the child abuse scandal which had been brewing in his predecessor's reign was waiting for Benedict - the ferocity of which few could have contemplated. For many, his actions and apologies were too slow. There are still serious questions about how great the Vatican's lead was in getting countries to unify an adequate response.

The Pope in Hyde Park in 2010
The Pope in Hyde Park in 2010 Credit: Reuters

But the apologies did come. I was on Pope Benedict's plane as he flew into the UK for his visit. His age showed then too, as he made his way to speak to the journalists at the back of the aircraft. He seemed frail, quiet and knew he was flying into largely hostile territory as story after story of abuse featured in the media. But he did address it - speaking of his personal hurt and of the Church's responsibility towards the victims.

There are very many people who will still struggle with the figure of Pope Benedict even as he plans to step down. But many will acknowledge too that he spoke with gentleness and humility when he came to Britain - and stirred many who didn't expect to be. He had a twinkle in his eye when he spoke to us journalists. He knew what he was dealing with.

I am nearly at the airport. These are momentous days for the Roman Catholic Church. Who will follow in Benedict's footsteps? Is it time for an African pope? Will he (only ever a he) take the Church further down the path of traditionalism or will the winds of change blow through one of the oldest institutions on earth?

More thoughts later when I get to Rome....