02/12/2013 02:51 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Pope Benedict's Legacy and the Next Steps for the Church

The news that stunned the world Monday is a first in the history of the Catholic Church. The last time a pope resigned was in 1294, but Celestine V was forced into that choice by internal strife within the Church. Since then, anti-popes have resigned during the Great Schism, but today is the first time since the Dark Ages that the successor of St Peter has resigned.

When elected, eight years ago, Pope Benedict XVI represented a consistent path his predecessor's, Pope John Paul II, whom he served for over 20 years in the position of the chair of the committee for the doctrine of the faith, the theological watchdog of the church. As Joseph Ratzinger comes from an academic background, that role was ideal to him, as his duties included the official policies of the Catholic church and ensuring doctrinal coherence. He received both plaudits and criticism in this role, as his adherence to orthodoxy and the resulting inflexibility towards adaptation of doctrine were his key hallmarks.

Pope Benedict's choice of his name (honoring the patron saint of Europe) was more than the possible temptation of adopting the same name of his predecessor John Paul, a proof of his willingness to keep the church communicating (and understood) by the world. At the first World Youth Day he chaired in Cologne, he proved as human and close to the young generation as John Paul II had been, albeit with a different style of communications. His words to encourage young generations not to have fear, to continue witnessing the faith and to keep Jesus at the center of life were not a retrospective agenda, but a call to action in the current days. On several occasions, the pope focused his flock to the challenges of living Christian values in current and difficult times and the need for an open approach to issues and problems. He emphasized a willingness to enter in deep reflection on the possibilities to adapt teaching to the new situations of our era. Key among this was Benedict's abiding interest in interfaith dialogue, and encouraging understanding between Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions, Islam and Judaism. This dialogue reinforced John Paul II's message of the role of religion in public life (he was the first pope to visit a mosque), and it would be a major accomplishment if future popes could follow in Benedict's footsteps in furthering that legacy.

Despite his German origins, Benedict XVI proved to be very close to Italy and his dioceses, keeping alive all the close personal ties he had amassed in his long stay in Rome as a cardinal. The former chief of staff of Italian Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione, Dr Francesco Tufarelli, recalls the pope's philosophy "to face with firm serenity a moment amongst the most difficult for the Catholic Church, never leaving room for even the impression that he was not completely aware and in control, but also accepting comparisons with his predecessor, as he himself was the first missing his old Polish friend".

Benedict XVI is also a rare pope who not only issued official statements but scholarly books and popular interviews. He has adopted a role towards intra-and inter-faith dialogues consistent with the history of the Catholic church as the original heirs of St Peter. He has been human and sensitive, focusing on the very critical issues of social teaching, economy, and the need not to close our hearts to our neighbors, particularly in difficult moments. But his understanding of the importance of his mission and the critical need to fulfill the teachings of the Church is borne out by this historic last decision. In a world where few people like to quit, the generosity and wisdom of knowing when to step aside is the true example of how much we are all a single community of souls. His decision today bets on a better future for the Church, with the certainty that through faith, the conclave of Cardinals will choose the most appropriate candidate for his successor.

The Catholic Church, in this decision, has a number of new elements. Key growth regions for the church are in the Atlantic Basin of Latin America and Africa, with Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria all countries with Catholics by the millions. How these changing demographics change the Catholic church is an open question - for one, it is clear that a focus on solely European leaders may come to an end, as news reports place a Ghanaian, Filipino, and Brazilian among the papabile. Secondly, the changing body of worshippers may lead to a greater focus on topics such as financial reform, the role of Islam and Christianity, and how to maintain a community in the atomizing era of the internet.