Pope Benedict XVI, according to those who know him well, has always been a man of simple grace and dignity. Unassuming and attentive, he is every bit a gentleman in the best sense of that word. Our world could use more like him. This character was on display yesterday as the 85-year-old pontiff announced to the world that, as he no longer possessed the physical stamina to meet the demands of his office, he would resign his title as Bishop of Rome on February 28. Not since the 15th century has a Pope renounced his office.
When Joseph Ratzinger was elected the 264th successor to St. Peter in 2005, he was taking the place of a man who was quite possibly the most popular Pope in history, Blessed John Paul II. To his credit, Pope Benedict has never tried to be a man he is not. Where his predecessor exuded charisma and warmth, Benedict has always been retiring and soft-spoken.
But behind the mild-mannered demeanor is one of the most incisive and courageous intellects of our time. The way Pope Benedict has lived his office these last eight years is instructive for all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
The greatest legacy of this papacy, and the thing for which we hope it is most remembered, has been the clarity with which Pope Benedict has diagnosed the deep spiritual and cultural malaise of the West, what he calls “the dictatorship of relativism.”
This pope has argued, repeatedly and convincingly, that human beings are capable of knowing, however imperfectly, certain unchanging truths about human existence. His defense of both faith and reason against the cynicism and skepticism of post-modernity reinforces truths without which a free society such as ours — which is dedicated to just such truths — cannot flourish.
With this final gesture of his resignation, Pope Benedict is offering one last act of catechesis. The successors of St. Peter are “fishers of men,” as Scripture has it, whose work is to bring souls to God. This work, more than anything else, is the measure of a pontificate. Knowing that he is unable to carry out this work with the energy and strength it requires, Benedict is giving up his own office for the sake of the Church’s mission. Some call that humble. Some might even call it heroic.
For our part, we wish Pope Benedict a long, peaceful retirement and send our gratitude for a job well done.