Where Pope John Paul II was charismatic, loved the spotlight and became famous for grand gestures, Benedict, despite his “God’s Rottweiler” nickname, was known to be bookish and private — he later said he prayed not to be elected pope but “evidently, this time He didn’t listen.”
Benedict, who formally ends his papacy Thursday after his stunning resignation announcement eariler this month, remains “very much a professor, a man of prayer, a man of study, his own demeanor is very humble. He doesn’t find himself at ease in being in the public spotlight,” said the Rev. Mark Morozowich, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University in Washington.
The frail pope, the first to retire as Bishop of Rome in 600 years, received an emotional and very public send-off as some 150,000 well-wishers flooded St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican to hear his farewell address. The often reserved Benedict took a long victory lap around the square, stopping the Popemobile to kiss and bless a half-dozen babies along the way.
“To love the church means also to have the courage to take difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the church in mind, not oneself,” Benedict said to thundering applause from the crowd and from dozens of cardinals who have descended on Rome to choose his successor in the coming weeks.
Despite lacking the public charisma of his predecessor, in fields ranging from the liturgy, ecumenical relations and theology to the handling of sex-abuse cases and other scandals that hit the church in recent years, Benedict in just eight years was able to carve out his own legacy, in significant part by continuing John Paul’s work in different ways.
Benedict “was John Paul’s right-hand man for 24 years” as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s chief orthodoxy overseer, said Monsignor Paul McPartlan, professor of systematic theology and ecumenism at Catholic University. “There’s a big difference in style and personality, but in terms of core commitments there’s a profound continuity between the two.”
While John Paul was raised as a Pole under Nazi occupation or Communist tyranny, Joseph Ratzinger spent most of his adult life in postwar West Germany, where secularism and consumer society held sway.
In a homily shortly after John Paul’s death, Benedict identified “the dictatorship of relativism” as the principal problem facing both society and the modern church. While it “recognizes nothing as definitive,” it turns “the self and its desires” into the only basis for truth and for action.
“One of the great themes of Pope Benedict’s pontificate has been to show the importance that reason has for a life of faith and the importance faith has for all of those who use their minds,” said Monsignor McPartlan.
To counter those trends in the rich, secularized West, Benedict promoted “the new evangelization.” In deliberate contrast with the image of spreading the Gospel to new areas, the “new evangelization” seeks to reawaken and revive it in nations, especially in Europe, that have been culturally Christian for centuries.
Although it was John Paul who first popularized the term, Benedict gave it new force, creating a separate council to promote it within the Roman Curia. Dedicating the council in June 2010, Benedict noted that “the process of secularization has produced a serious crisis of the sense of the Christian faith and role of the Church” that has produced “a sort of ‘eclipse of the sense of God.’”
“Very fearlessly and courageously he’s taken the Gospel right into the public square” in numerous public addresses at secular parliaments and universities, said Monsignor McPartlan.