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Pope Benedict XVI leaves after an audience with the Roman clergy in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Thursday Feb. 14, 2013. Benedict XVI is continuing his farewell tour with an off-the-cuff meeting with Roman priests, an annual encounter that has taken on poignant new meaning with his impending resignation. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

In the 2,000-year history of the papacy, there have been all sorts of popes, including administrators, monks, pastors, lawyers, and theologians. The present pontiff who will step down from the chair of Saint Peter at the end of the month can be numbered among the latter. His lack of administrative savvy, as many commentators have noted, has led to feudal warfare in Vatican City.

Some might say he let the Vatican run its course so that he could commune with the worldwide Catholic faithful through his writings. Pastorally, Benedict XVI acquitted himself as pope with respect to the sexual abuse scandals in the church. Deeply troubled personally by the gross failure of the priestly ministry, the pope moved with determination to right the wrongs he found.

Most notably, he removed from ministry the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel. The real test of Benedict's legacy, though, will be his impact on the church and the world as a teacher and scholar. In this regard his record is mixed, with some good and some detrimental effects.

His scholarly way of thinking has meant safety and constancy for official Catholic teaching. At the same time, however, it also burdened the church with new directions that may have looked good on paper but were divorced from the realities of lived experience.

The decision to approve an English-language revision of the Mass that was the result of a small committee without widespread consensus has saddled English-speaking Catholics with words that grate at their sensibilities during the central act of public worship at the Mass.


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The continued use of male nouns and pronouns as the gender universal and the adoption of cumbersome Latinate expressions can only be seen as mistakes made in an ivory tower. On the other hand, Benedict's profound learning allowed him to distinguish the essentials of church teaching from doubtful matters and to plead for a faith informed by reason in a world often scarred by religiously motivated violence.

Pope Benedict XVI was the last pope who participated in the Second Vatican Council, which brought about so many changes in the Catholic Church. His successor will be the first pope of the generation to inherit the work of the council.

In the spirit of the council's call to engage the world in dialogue, it will be most important for him to steer the church toward greater transparency, especially in the wake of the bishops' horrific record of handling abuse cases.

It will also be incumbent on the new pontiff to continue the legacy of Benedict XVI on the preaching of faith, the advocacy of peace, and the application of reason in worldwide religious dialogue.

Perhaps his greatest legacy will be his last act as pope, his resignation. Only a scholar pope with the confident knowledge of history could do something so breathtakingly unexpected yet also within church tradition.

His resignation speaks of deep scholarship, but also of humility. Benedict has been able to distinguish his own frail humanity from the office entrusted to him.

Like Saint Peter, the first pope, at the end of the John's Gospel, Benedict is able now to let himself be led away and leave others to remain in service.

This daring act by someone holding one of the most revered and influential positions of leadership is a prophetic witness in a world of eminent gerontocracy.

The symbolic choice of leaving office on the last day of the last full month of winter points to Benedict's confidence at the approach of a new spring for the world and the Church.

Brother Charles Hilken, FSC, is a history professor and chair of the Bishop John S. Cummins Institute for Catholic Thought, Culture and Action at Saint Mary's College.