The surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI as shepherd of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics was an extraordinary event both for the church and for a world that continues to see this spiritual leader also as an influential voice on broader issues.Fort Worth has special reason to be curious about the papal succession.Bishop Kevin Vann left late last year to lead the Orange County diocese in California, and only the pope can name a new bishop for the 28-county Fort Worth diocese.Monsignor Stephen J. Berg was named interim administrator. He's carrying out many duties of a bishop running the diocese, but he can't give pastors new assignments or create parishes.It could be 2014 before Fort Worth gets a new bishop.Experience has shown that the choice makes a profound difference on many levels, in faith and doctrine, as well as more practical concerns. Vann, for instance, was more willing than his predecessor, Joseph Delaney, to openly confront allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the diocese and to initiate procedures to report past problems and guard against future ones.Similarly, how the next pope is seen will determine the strength of the church's role in debates about a range of challenges facing the world, beyond the U.S. hot buttons of abortion and the death penalty: troubles such as environmental degradation, the plight of refugees in war-torn countries and the response to HIV/AIDS in developing nations.Benedict's successor, who could be selected by Easter, is expected to be much like him. He appointed 67 of the 117 cardinals expected to vote. That's likely to continue the frustration that progressives, particularly among American Catholics, have with the hierarchy's resistance to discussion about married priests, artificial contraception and women's roles.In parting remarks Thursday to parish priests in Rome, Benedict, 85, recalled his experiences as a theological expert during the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65 that sounded somewhat like revisionist history but might also have been foreshadowing.He said the media misinformed Catholics about the reform effort:"We know that this Council of the media was accessible to all. So, dominant, more efficient, this Council created many calamities, so many problems, so much misery, in reality: seminaries closed, convents closed, liturgy trivialized ... and the true Council has struggled to materialize, to be realized," he said, according to a Vatican Radio transcript. (bit.ly/YZDGF0)His message seemed to be that a major '60s-era event, seen both inside and outside the church as opening an unyielding institution to more modern thinking, was more about reviving long-standing traditions and convictions in a changing world.During almost eight years as pope, Benedict steered the church toward that view, with a rewrite of the liturgy, more openness to congregations again celebrating Mass in Latin and a reining in of American nuns who were seen as straying from doctrine.Benedict is known as a scholar, not a showman or huggable figure like his predecessor, John Paul II.Writing in the Catholic magazine America, University of Dayton professor Vincent Miller told of "a European scholar who criticized Benedict for making the papacy 'small'," making it more about the office than its occupant. (bit.ly/XrdWlN)But that's a curious juxtaposition to the rise of influential American Catholics in powerful positions: Six of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices are Catholic, as are Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee. The Catholic bishops have kept a high profile, both in aggressive battles with President Obama over healthcare policies and as outspoken advocates of comprehensive immigration reform.In an age when even the pope was tweeting, don't expect the selection of a new Catholic leader to be a parochial event.Even the publisher of the Election Law Journal put out a press release Wednesday touting a Virginia Tech history professor's 2006 article about papal election rules. (bit.ly/YedWUf)Don't be surprised to see the smoke signifying that the conclave has chosen a pontiff billowing on live TV, Facebook and all over the Twitterverse.