Pope Benedict XVI, a gentle and thoughtful leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics for eight years, has assured his place in history.
His stunning resignation, which he attributed to declining energy and strength due to advancing age, was the first by a pope in more than 600 years. It took the Church and the world by surprise and will reverberate through the ages. It answers with certainty the often-asked question of whether or not a pope can step down for reasons of infirmity or age. And it will impact the factors that cardinals will undoubtedly consider in electing successors from now on.
This moment, however, is one for joining Benedict in prayer and with love as he begins his new journey, “strengthened and reassured,” he said, that “the Church is Christ’s, who will never leave her without his guidance and care.”
Making those remarks at his first general audience Feb. 11 after resigning his papal ministry, the 85-year-old pontiff spoke with the clarity and eloquence that has marked his homilies, speeches and writings throughout his reign.
Looking relaxed and rather relieved, Benedict repeated his earlier words, that he made his decision “in full freedom for the good of the Church,” after much prayer and examining his conscience “before God.”
The German-born Pope Benedict XVI was elected to succeed the outgoing and charismatic Pope John Paul II, whose 27 years in the Chair of St. Peter made him the second longest-serving pope ever.
The contrast with the bookish former professor who became Pope Benedict XVI was sharp, but Benedict—already 78 when he ascended the papal throne—accepted his mantle with grace, humility and dedication.
Shy and introverted by nature, he willingly assumed the spotlight of the modern papacy, presiding at the lengthy Masses and ceremonial events that are part of the Vatican routine, welcoming world leaders who came calling and ordinary Catholics at audiences, and traveling around the world to cheering congregations of millions.
His 2008 pastoral visit to New York, with an address to the United Nations, a visit to Ground Zero and Masses in Yankee Stadium and St. Patrick’s Cathedral was one such trip; his appearances at World Youth Days, most recently in Madrid, were others.
Leadership of the institutional Church was his job, too, and one that often involved steering it through troubled waters. The clergy sexual abuse scandals, which predated Benedict’s papacy, were an ongoing issue, and new things erupted as well, like the so-called Vati-leaks crisis that reached the papal household itself.
Still, Benedict continued to articulate the Church’s teachings as clearly and as often as he could. His three encyclicals—on love, hope and social justice—will guide generations of Catholics. His homilies and public addresses were often low-key reflections on profound themes, like the one he delivered on Ash Wednesday during what may be the last public Mass he will celebrate as pope. “The true disciple does not serve himself or the ‘public,’ but his Lord,” the pope said, “in simplicity and generosity.”
He also said this: “For me, it is also a good opportunity to thank everyone…as I prepare to conclude the Petrine ministry, and I ask you for a special remembrance in your prayer.”
That we will do, Your Holiness, and we will take to heart your own prayer as you take the next step on your journey, “The Lord will guide us.”