As surprises go, it would be hard to top yesterday's announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will step down at the end of the month.
Reportedly not even his closest associates were aware of his intentions and certainly in this corner of the world there was a sense of shock. Many were stunned and struggled to comprehend what it meant, or would mean in the future.
It is impossible to understate the significance of Benedict's announcement. It is unheralded in the past 600 years. If ever such a thing would or should have been considered, it would have been for his predecessor John Paul II, whose health had deteriorated noticeably near the end. His public appearances became less frequent and as his body failed him his ability to perform his duties must have been compromised.
It would appear that is something that Benedict will not allow, and if anything he deserves credit for acknowledging his own weaknesses and putting the good of the church and its 1.2 billion followers before himself.
So often the Catholic church is criticised for its conservatism, inability to adapt to the modern world and lack of accountability. An organisation of that scale needs a leader who is certain of his role, definite in vision and who has the strength and support to carry it out. By stepping aside, Pope Benedict has given his faithful every chance at a positive change, but much will depend on who the conclave selects to replace him.
Anyone who feels that this development and the coming election are of little relevance, think again.
There can be no doubt that the Catholic church is a large-scale organisation; it has immense wealth and can exert considerable influence on governments, policy and corporations. To suggest that Benedict's abdication of the papacy and the result of the coming election are of no consequence to New Zealanders or non-Catholics grossly underestimates the power of the church and its Pope.