For the first time in almost 600 years, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church has resigned his post.
The shock of this announcement was felt at every level of the Church and throughout the world. The Dean of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano - one of the Pope's closest advisors - was so shocked, he issued his own statement. Even the Pope's brother, Georg Ratzinger, was shocked and surprised. Many others, lay people and Church leaders, also published their own reactions.
While this is not without precedent (Gregory XII resigned in 1415), it is likely to set a new, modern precedent: resignation, rather than death, as the end of a papacy. Given the increasing lifespans and expanded duties of the papacy since the Second Vatican Council, Benedict's words today seem less like a resignation and more like prudent advice given to the next Conclave:
in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary
You can bet that the next few weeks, leading up to and during the Conclave, will see the mass media become like bookies, placing odds on which of the eligible Cardinals, a.k.a. papabili (most of whom were appointed by Benedict, with a few appointed by his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II) will be the next Pope. (The UK Guardian already has betting lines showing the top contender as Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana, followed by Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras as 5th most-likely.)
It is also a safe bet that you will hear about the alleged "Prophecy of Malachy" again (this upcoming election supposedly of Petrus Romanus, the last one listed in the prophecy). What is not all that likely is that the next pope will be John Paul II... again!
While Joseph Ratzinger's own election as Pope Benedict XVI was a surprise to many who were hoping for a younger (and possibly more moderate/progressive/heterodox pope), his papacy has served as a good transitional period from that of John Paul II's near-record reign. While the next pope will likely be a much younger man (Ratzinger was 78 when elected), have no doubt that - much to the chagrin of certain politicians, members of the media, and even elements within the Church hierarchy - the Catholic Cardinals will, in fact, pick another Catholic to lead the Church.