VATICAN CITY – Benedict XVI always cast himself as the reluctant pope, a shy bookworm who preferred solitary walks in the Alps to the public glare and the majesty of Vatican pageantry. But once in office, he never shied from charting the Catholic Church on the course he thought it needed – a determination reflected in his stunning announcement Monday that he would be the first pope to resign since 1415.
While taking the Vatican and world by surprise, Benedict had laid the groundwork for the decision years ago, saying popes have the obligation to resign if they get too old or sick to carry on. And to many, his decision was perfectly in keeping with a man who had dedicated his life to the church, showing his love for the institution and a courageous acknowledgment that it needed new blood to confront the future.
“This decision, even though it fills us with surprise – and at first glance leaves us with many questions – will be as he said for the good of the church,” said Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, who is a leading contender to succeed Benedict.
The pope, a German theologian whose mission was to reawaken Christianity in a secularized Europe, grew increasingly frail as he shouldered the monumental task of purging the Catholic world of a child-molestation scandal that festered under John Paul II and exploded during his reign into the church’s biggest crisis in decades, if not centuries.
More recently, he bore the painful burden of betrayal by one of his closest aides: Benedict’s own butler was convicted by a Vatican court of stealing the pontiff’s personal papers and giving them to a journalist, one of the gravest breaches of papal security in modern times.
All the while, Benedict pursued his single-minded vision to rekindle faith in a world that he frequently lamented seemed to think it could do without God. “In vast areas of the world today, there is a strange forgetfulness of God,” he told a million young people gathered on a vast field for his first foreign trip as pope, World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. “It seems as if everything would be just the same even without Him.”
With some decisive, often controversial moves, Benedict tried to remind Europe of its Christian heritage and set the Catholic Church on a conservative, tradition-minded path that often alienated progressives and thrilled conservatives.
The Vatican’s crackdown on American nuns – accused of straying from church doctrine in pursuing issues of social justice rather than stressing core church teaching on abortion and homosexuality – left a bitter taste for many American Catholics.
But conservatives cheered his championing of the pre-Vatican II church and his insistence on tradition, even if it cost the church popularity among liberals.
Yet his papacy will be forever intertwined with the child sex-abuse scandal.
Over the course of just a few months in 2010, thousands of people in Europe, Australia, South America and beyond came forward with reports of priests who raped and molested them as children, and bishops who covered up the crimes. Documents revealed that the Vatican knew well of the problem yet turned a blind eye for decades.
Benedict had firsthand knowledge of the scope of the problem since his old office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which he had headed since 1982, was responsible for dealing with abuse cases. He met with victims across the globe, wept with them and prayed with them. He promised that the church must “do everything possible” to ensure such crimes never happen again. The Vatican updated its legal code to extend the statute of limitations for cases and told bishops’ conferences around the world to come up with guidelines to prevent future abuse.
His conservative vision is a direction his successor will likely continue, given that the bulk of the College of Cardinals – the princes of the church who will elect the next pope – was handpicked by Benedict.
Benedict relaxed restrictions on celebrating the old, pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. He reached out to a group of traditionalist, schismatic Catholics in a bid to bring them back into Rome’s fold. And he issued an unprecedented invitation to traditionalist Anglicans upset over women priests and gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church.
In doing so, he alienated many progressive Catholics who feared he was rolling back the clock on Vatican II. He also angered some Jews who equated the pre-Vatican II church with the time when Jews were still considered ripe for conversion and were held responsible collectively for the death of Christ.
Yet like John Paul, Benedict had made reaching out to Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as pope was a letter to Rome’s Jewish community, and he became the second pope in history, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue.
Benedict riled the Muslim world with a speech in Regensburg, Germany, in September 2006, five years after the terrorist attacks in the United States, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman,” particularly “his command to spread by the sword the faith.”
He wrote three encyclicals, “God Is Love” in 2006, “Saved by Hope” in 2007 and “Charity in Truth” in 2009. The last was perhaps his best-known, as it called for a new world financial order guided by ethics that was published in the throes of the global financial meltdown.