International (MNN) — Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world with his resignation announcement Monday.
With that, he became the first pope in 600 years to leave his post. Citing frail health, he will be stepping down at 8 p.m. on February 28.
The 85-year-old German pontiff dropped the bombshell in a speech in Latin to cardinals. He's been in office since April 2005 and noted that leading the world's 1.2 billion Catholics was a job that required strength of both mind and body.
The pope's departure will give way to a conclave, a gathering of cardinals who will elect the new pope. They're tasked with picking someone who will re-energize truth in a fading culture, as well as someone who will face cleaning up the Church's reputation and can take on the challenge of Islam, which has become the fastest-growing religion in the world.
"Christianity is no longer a religion of culture, but a religion of decision and commitment," said a spokesman for the Catholic Church. That said, Pope Benedict's replacement will have to be both an intellectual as well as someone who can speak to the common man.
Spokesman with Voice of the Martyrs USA Todd Nettleton points out that "the Pope is seen as sort of a ‘face' of Christianity in many parts of the world; and so as the Pope steps down, and as there is a new pope chosen, there will be a new face."
From VOM's perspective, their ministry has appreciated that the Pope "has consistently drawn attention to persecution of Christians around the world in the things he's said. He has shone the light on the persecution of our brothers and sisters, so that voice will be missed."
New leadership can go either direction, as was evidenced by the new Coptic pope who withdrew his influence from political advocacy in Egypt at a time when Christians were being marginalized in the newly-formed government.
Nettleton says Pope Benedict's advocacy brought awareness and more. "From the perspective of our work with the persecuted Church, we would love for the new pope to be a person who will speak about persecution, who will shine the Light of the Truth onto the stories of persecution around the world, and be a voice for the suffering Church."
Even as recently as February 1, 2013, church officials, at the behest of the pontiff, were pursuing treaties with governments to reduce both hostilities and the marginalization of Christians. Pope Benedict also recently met with a top communist leader of Vietnam for the first time to cut down on harassment against Christians..
The Open Doors World Watch List 2013 marks the top 50 hotspots for Christian persecution and includes many of the same nations the Church is working with, including the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, South America, as well as the United Kingdom and the United States.
Nettleton says the situation requires a prayerful response. "Our prayer needs to be that whoever the new pope is, [he] will be a person who seeks after God's heart and desires to follow Him fully–and desires to lead the Catholic Church to follow Him fully."