The retirement of the Pope offers an opportunity for the Catholic Church to discuss some difficult questions, Canberra's Monsignor John Woods says.
These could include the widely different concerns of First- and Third-World congregations, the role of women in the church, same-sex attraction, the ''gift'' of celibacy, the environment and issues arising from investigations into allegations of sexual abuse.
Monsignor Woods, the senior cleric and archdiocesan administrator for the diocese of Canberra and Goulburn after the departure of Archbishop Mark Coleridge last year, said the pontiff's decision may delay the appointment of a replacement archbishop.
''I have heard speculation a new Pope may be elected before Easter,'' he said. ''While a new papal nuncio has been appointed for Australia, he is yet to arrive. This would, in the normal course of events, [be likely to] push matters out.''
While Pope Benedict's announcement had caught people unaware, his decision reflected ''a sensitive conscience and a respect for his office''.
''He is an intelligent man and he knew he was doing something that had not been done for centuries,'' Monsignor Woods said.
''This will create a media frenzy but it is time to see where God's spirit will lead.''
The Monsignor praised the work of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, noting the two men had worked closely.
With a joint tenure spanning 34 years they had given the church a period of stability and consolidation and laid the foundations for engagement and dialogue on a wide range of issues.
''If we [the church] have confidence in the truth and beauty of our own traditions we can approach such a dialogue with hope, not fear,'' he said. ''The spirit that moved in the times that gave us our traditions moves in the world today [as well]. God can call us onward.''
Monsignor Woods said the church was not special of its own accord but, rather, for what it could achieve.
''If the church is special for anything it is that it can affirm the dignity of everyone,'' he said. ''That dignity comes from the grace of God.''
He said Pope John Paul II had railed against moral relativism that argued ethics could be varied depending upon circumstances and that Pope Benedict XVI, although regarded as a conservative, had opened doorways to reform.
''Pope Benedict ordained a change on canon law that may open the way for women to be ordained as deacons [in the Catholic Church],'' he said.
''[But] we need to be mindful First-World issues are not universal. The role of women in leadership in the church continues to be problematic in the West but that is not so in other areas. In many parts of the world, not least the Third World, trade, foreign debt, the environmental impact [of development] and population pressures are significant.''