02/12/2013 05:23 EST | Updated 04/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Pope Benedict Will Become the Invisible Man

FILE - In this Thursday, March 25, 2010 file photo Pope Benedict XVI gestures from his popemobile as he leaves a youth gathering, in St. Peter's square, at the Vatican. When he became pope at age 78, Benedict XVI was already the oldest pontiff elected in nearly 300 years. He's now 85, and in recent years he has slowed down significantly, cutting back his foreign travel and limiting his audiences. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

This is a good, even a heroic decision by Pope Benedict. It is also one that makes perfect sense in hindsight, when we think of his visits to the tomb and relics of Pope St Celestine V, the pope who abdicated in the 13th century and his observation, in 2010's Light of the World, that "if a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of an office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign."

Although I'll be disappointed that we'll be deprived of Benedict's wisdom, I cannot but admire how he has been willing to break with centuries of practice in the face of reality: he is frail and the Church is a big ship that needs a healthy captain. In doing this, he has freed his successors from the need to shackle themselves to the mast, no matter how feeble they might be.

John Paul's determination to lead the Church right through his agony and to his death gave a powerful witness to the value of our lives and the missions we are given, but it can hardly be denied that in his final years the Church was somewhat rudderless. Benedict, I think, feels we do not need to relearn that lesson every decade or two, and recognizes that modern medicine can keep him alive beyond a time when he can effectively lead.

His decision strikes me as a deeply humble one, too; always determined to be a teacher and an academic, he had leadership thrust upon him, and now he intends to leave the limelight altogether. I am fairly sure that once he enters Castel Gondolfo, and then a monastery near the Vatican, we'll hardly ever hear of him again. Unlike King Lear, or Mrs. Thatcher, he won't hang around to undermine his successor. From being one of the most visible people in the world, he shall become one of the most invisible.

He leaves behind him a Church in far better shape than he found it, and in the fullness of time I'm certain his attempts to renew the liturgy and the episcopacy will be recognized, as will his strenuous efforts -- still unrecognized by so many -- to cleanse the Church after the abuse crises. A lot remains to be done on that, obviously, but Benedict's work deserves credit.

His teaching, too, will I think be seen as a true gift to the world. For all his skill and erudition as a theologian, his writing has displayed a remarkably common touch; his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy is as notable for its clarity as its profundity and its engagement with current academic work, and his weekly audiences drew crowds far larger than those that attended the audiences of his perhaps more obviously charismatic predecessor.

He was tireless in his insistence that faith and reason worked in harmony, each depending upon the other, and on our need, as Catholics, to engage with the world in an honest and open way -- it's worth looking at his engagements with the Muslim world in the aftermath of the oft-misunderstood Regensburg speech, and at his creation of the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" to engage with atheists and agnostics.

The media tended to get him wrong, I'm afraid, as indeed did many Catholics: Benedict is a thinker who needs to be engaged with, and for too many the instinctive response was nodding or kneejerk rejection; he needed to be listened to carefully and to be pondered.

One of the most striking features about him was how he learned, and continued to learn, throughout his career whether as a young priest, a university professor, or as Pope; a former PhD student of his told me some months ago about how Benedict genuinely listens in a serious and profound way, and how he has always been notable for this.

That he seems to have been the member of the Curia who took most seriously the abuse crisis is an example of this, such that it was no accident that the whole area became his responsibility as head of the CDF, but during his papacy we can think of how he's learned more and more about the need to engage with mainstream media and most recently social media online. He was correct when he described the internet as being less a tool that people use than an environment in which they live.

I think much will come from his encyclicals too, with Caritas in Veritate bound in time to be recognized as a profoundly important critique of modern capitalism. I think we can all agree that capitalism as we have it isn't quite working, and there aren't many coherent alternatives out there: Catholic Social Teaching may well point us in the right direction.

On possible successors, I'm always reluctant to speculate, given how Benedict himself was widely regarded as an over-the-hill outsider entering into the last conclave; with hindsight, of course, it all looks rather different. That said, Irish bookmakers are offering odds on frontrunners, so I will say that while I like the look of Peter Turkson, Angelo Scola, and Christoph Schönborn, for me I really think Canada's Marc Ouellet is the one to watch.

Head of the Congregation for Bishops, he'll be the man best equipped to pick the Church's new leadership around the world, and is definitely in a Ratzingerian mould in terms of his views on culture, relativism, and the Church in Europe.

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