He didn't face an Italy being overrun by outside invaders as Leo the Great (440-461) and Gregory the Great (590-604) did -- or as John Paul the Great (1978-2005) did with the ugly Iron Curtain that walled him from the West during the years of his youth.
The conditions weren't ripe for another "Great." Yet Benedict XVI's scholarly writings, clear preaching, and letters addressed to the whole world made almost as profound a contribution to the life of the Church as the other three Greats did during their own papacies.
In Israel and the United States, Jewish leaders are ranking him as the best pope ever for the Jews. A broad band of disaffected Anglicans have welcomed Benedict's thoughtful efforts to think through a fruitful future for both communions, being sure that Anglican traditions and beautiful liturgy are kept intact. No pope in five centuries has affected England's culture more deeply, writers from Great Britain say. Does not his self-effacing manner seem rather English?
For decades, Benedict has preferred a highly biblical language and reflected deeply upon Holy Scripture, far more fully than Catholics characteristically do.
One friend, a well-known Baptist leader, once said to me of Pope John Paul II: "Hey! I'm as strong an anti-papist as any man living. But you guys at last have a pope who knows how to pope!" He liked John Paul very much. I suspect he likes Benedict's centering in Scripture even more.
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Altogether, Benedict's renunciation of his office is a huge act of confidence in the future of the church. He has spent himself and is visibly weakened. And he knows that just two or three weeks after he leaves office, the church will calmly elect a successor in a law-like way. Before Easter a new pope will almost certainly be in place.
Looking about him, Benedict knows that the church now counts 1.2 billion communicants (one out of six of the world's inhabitants). The world is not becoming secular, as so many since Matthew Arnold have thought. The world is a huge sea of religious longing, founded in nature itself, and rooted in the infinite eros of inquiry. Alert human beings ask an endless stream of questions: Why are conscious beings such as we on this earth, under this great sky, with the wind on our faces? What ought we to do? What ought we to hope for?
Our endless drive to ask questions is the clearest sign in our own nature that we are driven by the infinite. We grow tired of anything less than the infinite, as we seek higher and deeper.
There is also the capacity in us to love infinitely. To love purely. To love un-self-centeredly. Another sign of the divine in us.
Benedict himself wrote most beautifully about such love. A certain form of love is the inner fire of God -- Deus Caritas Est.
Benedict may carry in his mind and soul more erudition about more eras of history and more cultures and languages than all but a handful of others on earth. But in his writings on the life of Christ -- the latest being on the infancy of Jesus -- he writes for you and me, not the experts. For them, the solidity of his work speaks for itself.
The pope's sober, scholarly writings have been planted like time bombs in the history of the next two generations, or more. They will keep exploding with light as readers slowly think them through.
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I have known Joseph Ratzinger since we were both young men at the Second Vatican Council in 1963-64. He was already famous for the great work he did at the Council as an expert and writer for Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, one of the early giants. Even as the youngest of the famous "Rhineland" theologians from Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Germany, Ratzinger soared in his reputation for deep, clear, and erudite creativity. All knew he would one day be a powerful figure in the worldwide church, but in those days one thought mainly of Italians in the papacy.
Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II were like brothers. They reserved time on Friday afternoons to go deeply into theology and the situation of the church now and in the future. As early as 1982, Ratzinger is known to have said to a group: No, communism is not a future menace to the church; communism is a dead idea. No serious person any longer looks to it as a reasonable account of reality.
My friends in Rome tell me that, powerfully popular as Pope John Paul II was among the people, Benedict -- by his shyness, diffidence, and respect for others -- quickly became even more so.
He has been a quiet pope, scholarly, deeply trustworthy with the confidences of others, seeking the good of all those around him. He has also been -- among the cardinals and among the public intellectuals of Europe -- one of the sharpest pencils in the box.
As early as 1992, Josef Ratzinger was elected to the French Academy as the successor of Russian nuclear physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. In 2004 Ratzinger debated the most public atheist philosopher in Europe, Jürgen Habermas, in Munich. To the surprise of many onlookers, most critics gave higher marks to Ratzinger in that courteous, respectful, and unsparing give-and-take.
After the death of John Paul the Great, I very much wanted his great friend Ratzinger to succeed him, old and frail of health as he was. Some of us thought he might not live three years. I am most grateful God gave him eight as pope, and hopefully many more as a hermit living in the small building being prepared for him at the Vatican.
Incidentally, that hermitage will solve the problem of his security very neatly. He will be cut off from the constant traffic of communications from all round the world, but his scholarship -- his true vocation -- can still continue, and in his weakness he can concentrate on union with God in hours of quiet prayer. As have many scholar saints.
The church in the near future is going to sail through very heavy and often antagonistic waters. It will probably continue to shed many members in the more developed, more pagan, more progressive nations. But on the great sea of humanity, these nations are few, dispirited, and losing influence. In the expanses of Africa and Asia, especially China, thirsty souls are coming eagerly to drink of the cool waters of quiet truths, by the millions.
Benedict has helped deepen the wells from which to take their fill.