Pope Benedict XVI’s humble and selfless resignation, effective February 28, should be seen as a fitting closure on a papacy that was quietly significant. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected in the 2005 conclave, many pundits viewed him as a temporary officeholder. Yet Benedict XVI fulfilled the legacy he set out for himself when choosing the name of the World War I pope.
For nearly eight years, Benedict was a firm advocate of dialogue with friend and foe. He bravely offered the world a gift cherished by the Catholic faith—the union of faith and reason. In this capacity, the pope was a bridge-builder, and lived up to his Latin title Pontifex Maximus. While maligned, Benedict put the Church in the perilous, but necessary, position between extremist religious fundamentalism and extremist secular materialism.
As United States Ambassador to the Holy See (2005-2008), I met the pope on several occasions to discuss the symmetry of values between the Holy See and the United States. In those private meetings and his annual addresses to the diplomatic corps, Pope Benedict XVI exuded a humility reflecting the solemnity of his office. Elected to succeed the charismatic Blessed John Paul II, he is to be commended for continuing the Vatican’s active role in promoting human dignity for all individuals. A great scholar, Benedict reminds us that religious values have an important role to play in the public square.
In the span of eight years, Benedict, the oldest pope to travel outside of Europe, visited twenty-four nations and the Palestinian territories. In each pastoral visit, his diplomacy was understated and subtle. His influence on Catholics, and other “people of good will,” is a testament to soft power, yet reflects an understanding of the hard realities of geopolitics.
I had the pleasure of organizing meetings between President and First Lady Bush and the Supreme Pontiff on several occasions. With six visits, President Bush holds the presidential record for papal meetings. These two world leaders expressed high regard and respect for each other.
Meeting with Laura Bush in 2006, Benedict conveyed to her his concern that radical Islamist money spent in North Africa’s madrassas would beget violence. This remarkable insight predates by six years the bloodshed now occurring in Mali. Furthermore, the pope’s letter to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was decisive in resolving the disputed kidnapping of British sailors in 2007. In his trips to Cuba and Lebanon in 2012, Benedict asserted that politics is subordinate to moral considerations.
Two trips epitomize the theme of Benedict’s papacy—Regensburg in 2006 and London in 2010. In the former, the erudite professor was quickly denounced by much of the international media for a criticism against an intolerant corruption of Islam that rejects human agency. The complex lecture inspired violent reprisals by some misinformed and radicalized Muslims around the world. Months later a Saudi prince visited the Holy See to foster and reciprocate the pope’s forthright dialogue.
Four years later, Pope Benedict traveled to London despite vocal opposition from a small group of anti-Catholic critics. Displaying tremendous poise, Benedict spoke in Westminster Hall. Learning from Regensburg the need for clarity and concision more than academic merit, Benedict shared his view that “the world of reason and the world of faith—the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief—need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.” It was a high point for the Catholic Church, and a statement that religion and spirituality are not incompatible with modern life.
The decision to retire is an act of humility. Benedict has left an indelible mark on the Catholic Church, preserved his theme of bonding faith and reason, and even maintained integrity amidst a much-touted scandal over his trusted butler. The Servant of the Servants of God, a phrase introduced by Pope Saint Gregory I near the end of the sixth century, leaves office in an act of selflessness.
When a papal conclave will be called in Rome in early March, the College of Cardinals will meet in the Sistine Chapel to choose Benedict’s successor. I can only hope that the example of Benedict, and the power of the Holy Spirit, guide them to choose as principled and humble a leader.