Like most people around the world, I was rather surprised to hear that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to become former Pope Benedict XVI. He’s the first pope in 600 years to resign, and it will be interesting to see whom the cardinal electors elect to succeed him (let us pray it’s not Cardinal Roger Mahony). They’ve been given a lot more advance notice than usual, and have ample time to discern whether God wants them to select another European pope or venture into new ecclesiastical territory with a Latin American or African pontifex.
Even under normal circumstances, succession in the Catholic Church takes far longer than in the LDS Church, where the passing of the prophetic mantle is instantaneous. Our church is led by 15 apostles, who are also considered to have prophetic authority. The leader of the church is always the senior apostle by date of ordination, and he is usually referred to as “the prophet,” a modern Moses, the only man on earth authorized to receive revelation for the entire church as the presiding high priest in Israel.
When the prophet dies, the authority to lead the church immediately falls upon the most senior apostle (again, by date of ordination, not age). In other words, in order for a newly-ordained apostle to become the head of the church, 14 other apostles have to die first. This ensures that whoever becomes the prophet will be a seasoned leader with decades of experience directing the affairs of the church worldwide. The current prophet, Thomas S. Monson, was ordained an apostle at age 36 and became the president of the church when he was 80.
On a personal note, I was elated when Pope Benedict XVI was elected, and I certainly hope that the cardinals will elect another charisma-challenged European pope. The Catholic Church is in decline in Europe, and electing yet another pope from that continent will change little. From my LDS perspective, the last thing that Mormons should want is for a charismatic African or Latin American cardinal to take up residence at the Vatican. Africa and Latin America are the areas of highest growth for the Mormon Church, and having a German theologian as pope for the past eight years has allowed our missionary work to flourish in many Catholic countries around the world. I believe that our missionaries will continue to enjoy success regardless of who heads other churches, but they might have a harder time knocking on doors in Abidjan or Accra if a personable, eloquent African were heading the Catholic Church.
I wish Pope Benedict well, and hope that his successor will continue to uphold traditional Catholic moral teachings in a world that sorely needs them.