02/13/2013 12:39 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Losing Our German Shepherd: On the Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI

This week's surprise announcement by Pope Benedict that he will resign from his position as Bishop of Rome and leader of the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church dropped like a bomb and quickly reverberated around the world. Much has been written about Pope Benedict since he took office in 2005, and many more articles were added since his statement on Monday.

It is already quite difficult to properly assess a pontificate that dates back decades or centuries. Yet to draw conclusions about a papacy that has not even ended is pretty near impossible. Those still trying to do so would be well advised to judge Pope Benedict by the standards and traditions of his papal responsibilities, not by the standards of today's ever-changing daily political grind and fast-moving media society.

The Catholic Church must be viewed as an institution the by-laws of which were stipulated by Christ himself. As a result, the ultimate role of the pope is that of a custodian. If a pope were to be a revolutionary, he would fail at his job. From the beginning, Benedict has internalized this custodianship and has placed his own papacy in the context of this almost 2000-year-old tradition. In that sense, too, his pontificate was a direct continuation of the Pope John Paul II's 27-year reign as leader of the Catholic Church.

However, where Benedict can be said to have gone further than John Paul II is in his concern for the unity of Christendom and his quest for closer inter-religious dialogue. On his first trip abroad attending the World Youth Day in Cologne -- a purely intra-church gathering -- Pope Benedict visited the local synagogue. On his second trip abroad, the first visit that had not been planned by his predecessor, Benedict decided to travel to Auschwitz. His humble speech at the death camp is seared in our collective memory: "I could not fail to come here. I had to come. It is a duty before the truth and the justice due to all who suffered here, a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of Pope John Paul II and as a son of the German people."

Benedict also entered into dialogue with leading scholars of the Muslim world who replied to his controversial Regensburg lecture. The fundamental importance of Benedict's call for a critical reflection on the relationship between religion and violence will likely only become apparent in the decades to come.

As for the ecumenical dialogue with fellow Christians from other denominations, Benedict pushed for concrete improvements of relations. In 2006, he made an important gesture vis-à-vis the Orthodox Church by dropping the title "Patriarch of the West", declaring that it was "pointless to insist on maintaining it." Moreover, Benedict opted to revert to the original form of the pallium still used by the Orthodox Church. He also reached out to Anglican Christians longing for unity, even allowing married priests from the Church of England to join the Catholic Church. In Erfurt in former East Germany, a place closely connected to the history and legacy of Martin Luther, he met with the leadership of the German Lutheran community at now Protestant monastery where Luther once lived as Catholic monk.

During the most difficult hours of his pontificate, when faced with enormous public pressure from around the world, Benedict showed courage. He acted decisively in the face of the unspeakable suffering derived from the child abuse scandals. Today we know that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger already tried to harshly crack down on child predators when he was still Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Sadly, his efforts were thwarted by some elements within the Vatican bureaucracy. After he became Pope in 2005, Benedict had carte blanche to go after the abusers.

At the direct orders of the Holy See, the national Conferences of Catholic Bishops in virtually all countries around the world have developed guidelines regarding how to combat sexual abuse. Apart from preventing these horrific acts to occur in the first place, Benedict also placed a heavy emphasis on providing pastoral care for the abused. The Pope will always be remembered for personally meeting -- as well as praying and weeping -- with various sexual abuse victims, beginning with his trip to the United States in 2008.

Benedict also addressed the 2010 abuse crisis head-on. His historically unique Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland is deeply moving and left no questions unanswered: "I must also express my conviction that, in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenseless children." It is important to recall that this letter was published on March 19, the feast of his patron, Saint Joseph. This subtle yet telling gesture demonstrates the overriding importance that the Pope attached to making sure the Catholic Church does come to terms with this dark chapter of its history.

Pope Benedict XVI will also be remembered as a very humble person. He was the first pope in history to replace the tiara in his coat of arms with a simple mitre. In doing so, Benedict emphasized the principle of collegiality with regard to his fellow bishops. Like no pope before him, Benedict also encouraged people to critically challenge his thinking. His books on Jesus were also published under his regular name (Joseph Ratzinger) and in the foreword to the first volume he wrote: "It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search 'for the face of the Lord'. Everyone is free, then, to contradict me."

Throughout his entire pontificate, Benedict never invoked the principle of papal infallibility. To the contrary, the pope often emphasized his personal failings and weaknesses. Benedict's resignation is a sign of his humility and a great act of leadership. This office in particular is bigger than any one individual and Benedict has clearly discerned that his diminished health does not allow him to fulfill his papal obligations.

The Catholic Church is a 2000-year-old institution with by-laws that cannot be changed by human beings. Ultimately, the Church's actions are focused on saving the soul of all humans on the face of this earth. If the Church is serious about this all-important mission, it cannot afford to get lost in the grind of daily politics and try to conform to the "zeitgeist" du jour. To the contrary, the Church must constantly encourage the faithful to hope more boldly, to believe more joyously, and to love more 'burningly.' In a fast-moving world that is constantly waiting for the next sensationalist news story to break and to be shared around the world within seconds, the Church's calling is neither easy nor attractive.

However, the Catholic Church's work and action is indispensable as there is arguably no other worldwide institution that is unconditionally committed to serving and helping all human beings wherever they may live. Throughout his pontificate, Benedict remained always fully committed to this all-important task.

Countless believers were able to strengthen their faith because of Pope Benedict's homilies on the importance of saints as effective role models in today's world or about the structure and internal consistency of the liturgical year. Millions of Christians were inspired by his call for the "Pauline Year," the "Year for Priests," as well as the current "Year of Faith." And even more people were deeply moved by Benedict's books on Jesus and found a new approach to their faith. Ultimately, these spiritual journeys and conversion will be the most important elements of Joseph Ratzinger's legacy. The German Shepherd will be missed.