Just when the world thought it knew Pope Benedict XVI as a traditionalist in custom and a conservative in theology, he made a startling decision rarely seen in the history of the church. To the surprise of many, he announced Monday he would retire on Feb. 28.
To say that a pope's resignation doesn't happen every day doesn't begin to describe this historic development; pontiffs don't retire every century. The last to do so was Pope Gregory XII in the year 1415, and that was done to end a schism among competing papal claimants.
The reason for stepping down, as Pope Benedict explained, was poignant and human. At 85, his powers are failing him. "In order to govern the bark (sailing ship) of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary -- strengths which in the last few months, have deteriorated in me," he said.
While cynics may suggest that the decision leaves Pope Benedict in a position to influence selection of his successor from retirement, retiring makes its own sense. No harder job may exist in church or state. A pope must inspire and instruct more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide -- this at a time when the authority of the church has been challenged by the scandal of child abuse among clergy and the church's eternal message has been under siege by secular forces and the ways of modernity itself.
Even in a younger pope, and Pope Benedict was the oldest in nearly 300 years when at age 78 he was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II, strength of body and mind are indispensable. In the light of that truth, Pope Benedict has wisely recognized his growing frailty. Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, an admirer, noted this physical decline on his last trip to Rome in October, although he said the pope's mind remained strong.
His mind is still strong and wise enough, it would seem, to recognize the greater good of the church. Now the College of Cardinals, the composition of which bears this pope's stamp, is faced with a challenge and an opportunity in picking a successor.
Will the cardinals revert to an Italian pontiff after two born in other countries? (Maybe.) Will they tap someone from where the church is strong and growing -- in Latin America or Africa? (That might be wise.) Will they consider an American pope, even one originally from Pittsburgh such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl? (Probably not, but if the child abuse scandal is ever to be laid to rest, Cardinal Wuerl would make an excellent choice as one who recognized the problem and confronted it.)
Pope Benedict's time as pope is not yet ready for the judgment of history, but this much can be said now. While the easy charisma of the personable Pope John Paul II was not his, he discharged his duties faithfully until he thought that he could no more -- and that merits respect. The traditionalist steps down in an untraditional way, opening a surprised world to new possibilities.