The Vatican moves very slowly -- they measure time in centuries, not years. Thus the news from Pope Benedict of his impending resignation during the last stretch of his seventh year as pope struck the public like lightning.
"Shocking! Unbelievable!" was the sentiment that came to mind when I (and I presume you) first learned of Pope Benedict's abdication.
This reaction is a natural initial response -- but there's a lot more to the story. The mainstream discussion about Benedict's decision is a regrettable oversimplification. We don't do justice to this important announcement declaring the pontificate a failure and proceeding to a guessing game of "who's the next pope."
Before we move on, we need to stop and reflect on what just happened -- not just in the past seven years, but the last 70 years. Upon closer examination of the facts, observers will see that this was a strategic decision, and not one done in a moment of weakness or despair.
Every papacy has a "theme" or an "aim." John Paul II's pontificate was focused on realigning the implementation of Vatican II and combating communism and materialism. By contrast Benedict's aim, I believe, was to bring the Church to the doorsteps of what Catholic theologian and thought leader George Weigel calls the next chapter in Church history: Evangelical Catholicism. In order to achieve this goal, Benedict needed to finish the implementation of Vatican II and set the stage for this new chapter in Church life.
Benedict and John Paul II represent two equally valid examples of executing the Petrine ministry, two different but effective approaches to leadership. In very general terms, John Paul was a philosopher who explained the Faith as an answer to the philosophical challenges from Ockham, Descartes, Kant, and Marx. Benedict XVI is the theologian who explains the Faith in very clear and liner terms, encouraging us to read the Bible again as God's ongoing Divine revelation rather than as a historical novel or ancient myth. As popes, they both lead the Church faithfully and effectively. John Paul in a sense started the project that Benedict would bring to completion.
Finishing the implementation of Vatican II was straightforward for Pope Benedict. In continuation of that effort, Benedict renewed the use of Latin in liturgical celebrations; clarified teachings around faith and reason, sincerely reached out to those who did not agree with Vatican II, and clarified inter religious and interdenominational dialogues.
Through careful decisions, Benedict offered the Church a "lifeline" to the past as it ventures onward into the 21st century. This is true not only in terms of Catholic thought, but also in the very physical expressions of our Faith, a distinctly Catholic issue.
A person close to him once told me that the pope purposefully uses all kinds of "props" that have fallen out of fashion since Vatican II. He did so specifically in order to give the next generation a chance to use these items in the future if they wanted to. Any items used by the pope in the beginning of the century would in a sense be legitimized for use by a pontiff in the next 100 years. Not doing so would surely seal them in for good in the history books. So the staff in the Vatican went to look for ideas in the proverbial "attic" to make sure that the rich history of Catholic liturgical customs would survive into the 21st century.
Setting the stage for the age of the New Evangelization was a bit more difficult. What Benedict did is focus on the basics. His first three encyclicals examined the three cardinal virtues: Faith, Hope and Love. His first three books focused on the center of the Catholic Faith: Jesus Christ. Like a steady drumbeat, he lectured every Wednesday on issues like the catechesis, the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors of the Church, the Psalms and prayer. Late last year, he held a synod (or a major Catholic meeting) on the New Evangelization and in his opening speech declared "The Church exists to evangelize!"
With that job done, and looking into the future, Benedict XVI apparently felt that the leader of this effort should bring youth and vitality to the job. A leader that could travel the world, meet people and stay on the job for a while to steer the ship with some constancy.
I think he then decided that he could not offer that to the Church himself or that he wasn't in fact the ideal person for the job. And as a truly benevolent shepherd, he decided to make way for the right person to be found to be the successor of Peter, during the beginning stages of this new chapter for the Church.
The timing he chose is greatly important. If he had waited until pundits, even only a few, would call for his abdication it would be too late. Then the political undertones would diminish and pollute the sincerity and selflessness of the decision. The way he decided to do it allowed Benedict to be ahead of the speculators and politicians among us. Dare I say he outsmarted them?
Leaders take note: Pope Benedict XVI provides a rare but profound example of humility in action. True leaders put their cause before their power and self-interest. Far from a failure or weakness, this may be the most shining moment of Benedict's papacy, and what will turn out to be a historically brilliant move.