The pope's announcement that he will resign his post has come to many Catholics as a surprise. But his resignation gives the Church the chance for a new beginning during a time of crisis, says DW's Bernd Riegert.
DW's Bernd Riegert
It's a revolution. A pope hasn't resigned in more than 500 years. Officially, the nearly 86-year-old Benedict XVI said that he was stepping down due to his deteriorating health. But in his Latin-language announcement, he said that the Church was difficult to lead during an era of rapid change, in a world "shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith."
The pope was no man of the people like his Polish predecessor, but instead was a brilliant theologian and intellectual, who always had difficulties with his office. During his 2011 trip to his German homeland, he gave the impression that he was detached. At the time, many people criticized the pope for being out of touch with the concerns of normal Catholics.
His resignation now officially opens the possibility for a Catholic leader who is more open to reform and can find answers to the Church's crisis in Europe and North America. In Germany, the Church is losing more and more members, and there aren't enough priests being trained to lead the next generation.
The long illness of Benedict XVI's predecessor, John Paul II, is still in memory. Joseph Ratzinger has cleverly avoided a public death. In his final years, he can dedicate himself to his great passion - writing theological books.
'A revolutionary step'
Ratzinger's resignation is not totally surprising. He had said years ago that a pope must have the fortitude to fulfill the demanding office. It's the timing that was a surprise. In the Vatican, insiders had assumed that Benedict XVI would resign his post after Easter. Among his challenges in office, the pope had been personally hurt by a scandal in recent months over stolen confidential papers. He had lost trust, and it must have become clear to him that he did not have control over the Curia, the Holy See's powerful administrative apparatus.
It's difficult to predict who will succeed Pope Benedict XVI. The cardinals will have to come together for the most unusual conclave in hundreds of years. They will not mourn a deceased pope, but instead will have the chance - after eight conservative years - to dare a new start. But through the appointment of many new cardinals, Benedict XVI has strengthened the conservative faction in the electoral body.
With his focus on fundamentals, Pope Benedict XVI drew a lot of criticism. But he did try to preserve the core Catholic beliefs. His resignation is a brave step, a revolutionary step. He has set new norms. Benedict XVI's successor will not be able to cling to the office. The lifelong papacy has been opened to the development of a more temporary office. The Vatican has opened itself - just a little bit - to worldly conceptions of governance and democracy.
Eight years ago, when Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, the German tabloid newspaper "Bild" cheerfully boasted, "We are the Pope!" Now the headline will have to read: "We give up, but in dignity!"