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Resignation of a teacher-Pope

  • 13 February 2013

Pope Benedict's resignation may be the most significant act of his papacy. It draws attention away from the mystique of popes and bishops, and focuses it firmly on their call to serve the Church.

His resignation allows us to reflect on his time as Pope. When the Cardinals elected Joseph Ratzinger many Catholics were surprised, and some alarmed at the choice. They identified him with the stern disciplinary actions and doctrinal intransigence of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith. They assumed he would bring the same narrow focus to his leadership of the Catholic Church.

The reality has been rather different. Certainly, in his approach to the liturgy and in his different attitudes to reactionary and liberal groups on the margins of the Catholic Church, the continuity between the Cardinal and the Pope has been noticeable. But most notable has been the continuing depth and breadth of his reflection.

He has been above all a teacher who can draw richly on Catholic spiritual and theological tradition to illuminate the large social and cultural issues of our day. Over the last decade the Christian world has been blessed by having such reflective and knowledgeable leaders as Pope Benedict and Rowan Williams. For Catholics his resignation will be an opportunity to say thank you to a man who has served the Church faithfully as Pope.

He was a scholar, and to adjust to the constraints and expectations of a public person clearly was not easy for him. His scholarly musings got him into trouble from time to time, but he learned from his mistakes, and finally seemed to derive wry enjoyment from his public engagements, particularly with young people, who responded to his humanity. In his retirement he will surely be looked on with affection and good will.

It is too soon to sum up his achievements and the challenges he leaves to the Church and so to his successor. He grasped the extent and the evil of clerical sexual abuse; dealing with it, and with the aspects of clerical culture that have contributed to it, will occupy the Catholic Church and his successors for the next generation.

Benedict was an acute observer of contemporary culture, particularly of how the focus