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Faith & Values

The Catholic Church is still abuzz with the surprise announcement last Monday by Pope Benedict XVI of his impending resignation on Feb. 28.

When Pope Benedict, at that time Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected to the papacy eight years ago, he was already 78 years old. Often the assumption among the Cardinals when they elect an elderly person is that he will be a transitional pope until a younger, more energetic candidate is available.

This line of thought was certainly the case when Angelo Roncalli, 77, was elected in 1958 to become Pope John XXIII. But then, this jovial, elderly pope surprised everyone by convoking the Second Vatican Council. The Council transformed the Catholic Church from a defensive posture into a dynamic engagement with the world, from standoffishness to reconciliation with other Christians, with Jews, Muslims and other people of faith.

No such surprise occurred with Pope Benedict — until now!

Such a resignation is extremely rare. The last time this occurred was 598 years ago when Gregory XII resigned during the time of the Western Schism — when there were two, and later three, rival popes — in order to pave the way for the election of a unifying candidate.

Pope Celestine V resigned in 1294. A pious old monk, he had been practically dragooned into becoming pope. Overwhelmed by the papal duties, Celestine resigned within three months. His successor Boniface VIII had him imprisoned so people could not rally round the resigned pope.

The situation now is much more serene. Benedict wisely and humbly assessed his own physical capacities and decided the time had come. He was also aware of how chaotic the Vatican governance had been during the last years of his predecessor John Paul II.

As Pope John Paul diminished, rival cardinals jockeyed for position and influence. Cardinal Ratzinger provided a degree of stability and sanity in the midst of the elbowing for position. So now, as pope, he undoubtedly didn’t want to see this unseemly upheaval occur again.

As the years have gone by, he has become much more devoted to his scholarly work. During his papacy, rather amazingly, he published three significant theological treatises on the life of Christ. He offered a rich, compelling portrait of Jesus which encourages believers to encounter Christ in a deeper, transformative way.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the pope’s legacy, at least among moderate Catholics, has been the continued appointment of men as bishops and to Church governance who, often enough, hewed to an established party line.

Pope Benedict strove to rekindle the faith in Europe through a more dynamic, more evangelical preaching of the Gospel. He was a kind and holy pastor, as well as an influential theologian. He will be seen as continuing the legacy of John Paul II, although in a more subdued, more scholarly, less superstar way.

I have no special insight about whoever the next pope might be. But I will venture out on a limb and go with Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 68, currently in the Vatican as the Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches. He was the Vatican “sostituto” or chief of staff for five years and is a capable manager. He is Argentine by birth, yet comes from an Italian family. He could be seen as the best of both worlds.

Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to