Disclosure: I am a Northern Irish Protestant who has prayed with Rev Ian Paisley. My wife is a Catholic.  Together we went to see Pope Benedict XVI preach at the Colosseum in Rome on Good Friday 2010. I believe he is a Christian who is as human (and therefore fallible) as the rest of us. Controversial I know…

Joseph Ratzinger will step down from the Papal office on 28th February at 7pm GMT. It is a rather big deal. This is his resignation statement. He is “well aware of the seriousness” of his decision. I immediately wondered if it was unprecedented. But it has happened before, most recently in 1415 (just three months before the Battle of Agincourt). The precedent is real, but distant.

The Pope has concluded that “in order to steer the boat of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

Pope Benedict XVI at  the Colosseum on Good Friday 2010

Pope Benedict XVI at the Colosseum on Good Friday 2010

There can be few, if any, callings so prominent as so be the successor of St Peter. So it is little surprise that his decision has sparked a lively debate about the acceptability of handing in his notice. It is normally only through death that God calls Popes away from their duty.

In that respect, it’s a dangerous profession. As Danny Wallace tweeted: “The vast majority of Popes die while being Pope. It’s bloody dangerous. Good move, Benedict.”

The Catholic former MP, Louise Mensch, seemed disappointed with the decision: “Bad news that the Pope is resigning. Didn’t know it was possible. John Paul II, many predecessors, continued til death in the worst health.”

I was extremely surprised at the news. I would be equally surprised if the Queen abdicated. But I wonder if it is simply romantic notions of  spiritual calling which prompt a belief that the Papal calling must be until death.

Although Papal resignations are not unprecedented, 598 years is long enough to establish a pattern that makes it seem unacceptable. The Papacy is, as Mrs Mensch also noted, not a “job”. She is quite right, it is a vocation to which one is called by God. In a similar way, she was called by the voters of Corby to be an MP. That too is a vocation, from which she resigned in August last year. I am sure her reasons (regarding her family) were honourable, but one must be careful not to judge others.

I believe that all Christians have a calling, often several callings. One may be called into a regular job, or to be an MP, or to be Pope. As well as regular work, I am called to be a husband, and hopefully soon a father.

I wonder if the calling of the Holy Father is more important that the calling of any other father. If a calling is from God, I believe that none is more important than any other. But the truth is that I don’t know; who am I to judge? Perhaps Father Ratzinger’s final calling will be even more important than his current responsibility. Only God knows the answer.