In my lifetime, the Roman Catholic Church has had heroic figures whose stature was greater than even their person. From John XXIII to John Paul II to Benedict XVI (yes, I intentionally left out Paul VI), the Roman Pontiff has cast a long shadow over the shape of the church he served. I am not sure what to say about them. I did not know them except through biography, the media, and their own words. Perhaps that is enough.
There is one thing that all of these seems to have shared and that is how comfortable they were in their own skin. They were heroic figures not because they were the smartest or the best but because they led graciously, humbly, yet confidently from this personal characteristic which flowed from their faith. They did not try to be someone other than themselves nor did thy presume to try and be heroic.
The announcement of Benedict's resignation was characteristically Benedict. It was a surprise but not. He had inherited the mantle of a globetrotting pontiff from John Paul II, who, though less in his declining years, had pushed the mantle of physical presence so that every succeeding Pope will be measured against his own example. He has shown a keen intellect and a good writer's style that meant the output and quality of the publications that have born his name (as priest, bishop, cardinal, and pope) is both impressive and accessible. Although the Chair of St. Peter is arguably one of the most powerful offices in the world, none of these men sought it out and each of them bore it as much as a burden as anything else. So, confronted by physical limitations which might preclude his ability to travel, issues of physical stamina, and, keenly aware of the great necessity laid upon the leader of the largest block of Christendom, it should have surprised none of us that he knew when he could not lead up to the standards he had set and those before him had laid down. It seems not many US Presidents want to leave the White House when their term ends but this Pope seems to relish the prospect of a contemplative life of prayer and study.
In my own lifetime, I have seen us struggle with leaders more notorious than notable. The insecurities and foibles of many of them not only diminished them in office but out of office and their place in history has, for many, been tarnished more than polished by their lack of comfort within themselves. It is an odd but, I believe, a true esteem, then, to say of these heroic pontiffs that part of their success was the fact that they were so comfortable with themselves. Rome would do well to find another who shares this quality.
On a personal level, I will miss him on the chair of St. Peter because he was keenly aware of and interested in things Lutheran. Perhaps because of his Germanic origin or experience in the Roman church, he knew Luther and the Lutherans better than any pontiff since Luther. In addition, he was quite willing to call out the modern historical critical movement for failing to serve the Church or the Scriptures well and, in addition, his keen interest in the liturgy has only encouraged my own.
There is nothing quite as interesting as the choosing of a pope (not even the election of a Synod President for the LCMS) so the world, and I, will be watching closely. And expectations will be high. We will see if the electors will choose again as wisely as they have in three previous elections (skipping Paul VI and John Paul I).