(RNS) Pope Benedict XVI came into office with the reputation of a conservative hard-liner, a vigorous defender of orthodoxy who wanted to restore Tradition -- yes, with a capital "T"_ to a church that was seen as disturbingly undisciplined.
Yet with the stunning announcement that he is resigning as the 264th successor to Saint Peter, Benedict may wind up fundamentally changing the way the church and the world view the papacy.
That's because the papacy has come to represent more than an office, and the pope more than just a higher-ranking priest or bishop who enjoys lifetime tenure, a nice Vatican apartment and the privilege of wearing a white cassock no matter the season.
Instead, the papacy is seen as a divine mission unlike any other in the church, and one that ends only in death.
"Christ did not come down from the cross," the late John Paul II, Benedict's immediate predecessor, would tell aides who wondered if his failing health and public suffering should compel him to relinquish his office.
A man is elected pope by the cardinals, yes, but at the behest of the Holy Spirit, according to Catholic theology. He takes a new name, and can't even go home to collect his things: He moves into the Vatican right away, inhabiting a new identity in a new position -- so superior that canon law says a pope can resign, but says he cannot resign to anyone.
To reign until death was the only thing that the Vicar of Christ on earth can do, and should do. Bishops retire at 75 and cardinals cannot vote in a conclave after age 80, but a pope was supposed to be forever.
Modern medicine started to change that, since popes could now live longer than ever before, even after the body or mind had failed. Modern media also played a role by demanding that world leaders -- even popes -- be available and visible and on the go, all the time.
Besides, church history taught that there were huge and potentially messy political ramifications to having, in effect, two popes at once. As John Paul once quipped to a doctor before an operation, "You have to cure me because there is no room for a pope emeritus."
Well, there wasn't -- until now.
Working out the practicalities of having two living popes is something the Vatican is still trying to resolve. Benedict says he will go to the pope's summer residence outside Rome when he formally resigns on Feb. 28, and after that he will live within a cloister inside the Vatican. He will have no part in the conclave to elect his successor, the Vatican says, and will not have a public role once his successor is named.
Will that be enough to avoid the kind of behind-the-scenes whispers of manipulation that marked papal elections centuries ago, and the sort of court intrigue that still drags the Vatican into periodic scandals?
Part of John Paul's concern over resigning was that a significant chunk of the church that was so devoted to him as a person might start a schism, declaring that the retired pontiff was the one true pope and all others pretenders to the throne.
"There is always the risk of schism," conceded the Rev. Robert A. Gahl Jr., a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, which is run by the conservative Opus Dei society.
"However, Benedict has acted with great transparency and in full accord with the law," Gahl added. For Benedict followers, "to claim loyalty while disobeying would be the summit of self-contradiction."
It's still unclear how this particular chapter in the papacy's colorful history will play out, and much will depend on what Benedict himself does during the interregnum and afterward; his resignation has certainly been hailed across the fractious Catholic world as one of great humility and charity.
But a graceful exit could also be Benedict's lasting legacy precisely because this most traditional of churchmen has, with his simple decision, effectively altered the meaning of the papacy.
"Benedict's resignation helps refine the notion of the papacy and, thanks be to God, distinguishes the person from the office," Terence Tilley, a theologian at Fordham University and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, wrote in a discussion of Benedict's resignation at the blog of Commonweal, a leading Catholic magazine.
"By this act, his frank admission that to carry out the Petrine ministry certain conditions of bodily and mental health are required, Benedict helps bring the papacy back within the Church, down from what Hans Urs von Balthasar called'pyramid-like isolation,'" added the Rev. Joseph Komonchak, an eminent church historian.
There is still the potential for this move to become another left-right battle in the church. Liberals could welcome this reimagining of the papacy as a way of demystifying the job and perhaps pointing toward a less papal, more collegial form of church governance. Conservatives could fear the same thing.
But it is crucial to remember that Benedict himself, both when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and after he was elected pope, had openly discussed the justifications for a pope to resign. And he had the orthodox credentials to pull it off -- a kind of "Nixon to China" moment in Catholic history.
So while his move was shocking, it should not be a surprise.
From the beginning Benedict said he wanted his ministry to put the focus on Christ, not on himself as the pope. Ironically, by resigning, he has grabbed the spotlight, for the moment. But in the long run, he may well have redefined the papacy much as he hoped, and more radically than many expected.
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02/12/2013 10:45 PM EST
Pope's Brother Says Benedict XVI Won't Return Home
REGENSBURG, Germany — Pope Benedict XVI is planning to stay out of the public eye following his retirement at the end of the month but may stand ready to advise his successor if asked, his brother said Tuesday after talking with the pontiff.
Speaking to reporters at his home in the southern German city of Regensburg, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who was ordained on the same day in 1951 as his brother Joseph, said he didn't expect Benedict's continued presence in the Vatican to intimidate the next pope.
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02/12/2013 9:46 PM EST
The Latest Betting Line On The Next Pope
Keith Thomson writes in a blog post:
Much is at stake with the selection of Pope Benedict XVI's successor, including a lot of money. Paddy Power, Europe's largest bookmaker, has already taken more than £100,000 in bets, and expects to see multi-million-pound action closer to next month's conclave at the Sistine Chapel.
While Las Vegas casinos refuse to accept such bets for reasons of "taste," Paddy Power is one of several major international bookmakers currently offering papal markets, not only on who will be the next pope, but what papal name he'll choose, his country of origin, and the length of the papal conclave, among others.
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02/12/2013 6:09 PM EST
Topless Feminists Hail Pope Benedict's Resignation
A group of topless activists scandalized visitors at Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral on Tuesday by disrobing in public to celebrate Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.
The small group of women, all affiliated with radical feminist group FEMEN, flashed their breasts and banged on bells in the cathedral, shouting slogans such as, "Bye Bye Benedict" and "No more homophobe," according to the Agence France-Presse.
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02/12/2013 6:06 PM EST
With Pope Benedict's Resignation, Gay Rights Advocates Hope For Change
HuffPost's Lila Shapiro reports:
Jeannine Gramick, a Roman Catholic nun and co-founder of a U.S. ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics, met Pope Benedict XVI only once, by chance, on a plane flying from Baltimore to Rome in the late-'90s. Because of her work with the lesbian and gay community, Gramick had by then been under investigation by the Vatican for more than two decades.
The encounter was serendipitous, Gramick recalled Monday after hearing news of Benedict's resignation. Gramick and leaders at her ministry had been worried that she would be excommunicated. She was traveling with the head of her order to Munich, via Rome, to pray that she would keep her place in the church. When she boarded the plane, she saw Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became pope, sitting with two empty seats beside him. She mustered her courage and sat next to him. "When he found out who I was, he just smiled and said 'Oh, I've known about you for 20 years,'" she said.
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02/12/2013 5:52 PM EST
Nuns Pray Inside St. Peter's Basilica
Nuns pray inside St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. With a few words in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI did what no pope has done in more than half a millennium, stunning the world by announcing his resignation Monday and leaving the already troubled Catholic Church to replace the leader of its 1 billion followers by Easter. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
02/12/2013 5:24 PM EST
Vatican Plans Big Send-Off For Pope Benedict XVI
VATICAN CITY, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Cardinals around the world began informal contacts to discuss who should next lead the Church through a period of major crisis and the Vatican said it planned a big send-off for Pope Benedict before he becomes the first pontiff in centuries to resign.
At a Tuesday news conference on how the pope plans to spend the next two weeks before he steps out of the limelight, the Vatican also disclosed that the 85-year-old Benedict has been wearing a pacemaker since before he was elected pope in 2005.
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02/12/2013 5:10 PM EST
Cardinal Seán O'Malley, OFM, Cap: Pope Benedict Was Committed To Ensure Abuse Would Not Be Repeated
Yesterday morning the Church and the world learned that Pope Benedict XVI, following an extended period of prayer and reflection, discerned that he would resign the papacy at the end of this month. This news certainly came as a great surprise to all of us. It would be reasonable to consider that the Holy Father's advancing age and the responsibilities of being the leader for more than one billion Catholics, including the demands of extensive international travel, played a central role in his decision. We join the universal Church in offering prayerful gratitude for the Holy Father's faith, courage and his leadership as the successor of Peter.
At this time it is appropriate for the Church and all people of good faith to reflect on Pope Benedict's legacy and achievements. He brought unique capabilities to the papacy as a highly qualified scholar and teacher, and as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in service to Blessed John Paul II. His fidelity to maintaining the truth and clarity of the Catholic faith, to cultivating ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and in reaching out to inspire the next generation of Catholics have been great gifts to us all.
During the course of the past eight years Pope Benedict embraced the papacy with the heart of a kind and caring shepherd, always holding the spiritual and pastoral care of the people of God to be the highest priority. The Holy Father also generously used his superior intellectual gifts, well established through his reputation as a renowned scholar, to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church with people from all walks of life throughout the world. He guided the Church through unprecedented challenges, always finding strength in Jesus' promise to be with us always, and led a world-wide renewal of evangelization that will influence the Catholicism for generations to come.
The Archdiocese of Boston in particular has been greatly blessed by Pope Benedict's care and concern.In all of my conversations with him he has always asked me to assure this local Church of his prayers and encouragement. I will always hold the Holy Father's 2008 meeting with survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and our presentation of the Book of Names of living and deceased survivors, as one of the most powerful experiences of my life and priesthood.
His overwhelming sorrow that such heinous crimes were perpetrated on the survivors and his heartfelt expression of love and concern were deeply moving, as was his absolute commitment that the abuse never be repeated and that the Church maintain her vigilance to do everything possible to insure the safety of children.
While there will be much speculation in the days and weeks ahead regarding who will follow the Holy Father to the Chair of Peter, at this moment we are called to reflect on Pope Benedict's leadership; offering prayers of gratitude for this servant of Christ who so dearly loves all of God's people. At this extraordinary moment in the life of the Church, we pray for the wisdom and grace of the Holy Spirit and the strength given by our Lord, who, assures us that he will be with us always.
02/12/2013 4:58 PM EST
Cardindal Francis Arinze: 'We Know You Have Done This For The Love Of The Church'
Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship, releases a statement:
02/12/2013 3:17 PM EST
The Monastery Where The Pope Is Expected To Live After He Resigns
A view of the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, right, next to the Tower of San Giovanni, inside the Vatican State where Pope Benedict XVI is expected to live after he resigns, on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. For months, construction crews have been renovating a four-story building attached to a monastery on the northern edge of the Vatican gardens where nuns would live for a few years at a time in cloister. Only a handful of Vatican officials knew it would one day be Pope Benedict XVI's retirement home. On Tuesday, construction materials littered the front lawn of the house and plastic tubing snaked down from the top floor to a dump truck as the restoration deadline became ever more critical following Benedict's stunning announcement that he would resign Feb. 28 and live his remaining days in prayer. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
02/12/2013 3:15 PM EST
FEMEN Protest Against Pope Benedict XVI
Activists of the Women's Movement FEMEN, protest against the Pope Benedict XVI who announced his resignation yesterday, in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)