CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pope Benedict's retirement was both a surprise and not a surprise. His frail self being taken down the aisle of St. Peter's Basilica displayed both strength of character and his increasing weakness. He was right to retire, and to spend time with his older brother.
Looking over his career, and writing as a non-Roman Catholic, I observed his transition from Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to work as the Bishop of Rome with interest. As head of his particular congregation, he seemed an enforcer. His professorial manner (in earlier pictures he is in coat and tie!) and exacting standards could have made his views feared by any who wanted to stray from the religious straight and narrow. For him, truth was Truth. No gray areas were allowed.
Even as a minister in a Protestant communion, I have experienced such strategies. I have been questioned by other ministers who wanted to detect any deviation from the strict standards of our 17th Century Confession of Faith. Fortunately, I was able to answer questions in a peaceful way, and none of my adversaries were able to "nail" me on this or that piece of doctrinal minutiae!
Benedict, for all his great qualities and pastoral gifts, was bound and determined that the Church should make its way back into another era. Despite his more progressive days, he became convinced that strict orthodoxy must be the norm. In this view, he was very much a supporter of the papacy of (now Blessed) Pope John Paul II, who both charmed and disturbed some observers.
I am sure the liturgical changes occurring in the Catholic Church have borne the imprint of his views. His promotion of the use of Latin in the Mass showed that some of the changes originating in Vatican Council II were deemed by him to be in at least partial error.
What was his hope as pope? Let me praise him for his fine sermon at the funeral of John Paul II. His theme was "follow me," and it is my opinion that he was not bidding to become, at his age, pope. I expect he knew that he was on the list, and was favored by many cardinals who had been appointed by John Paul II.
He did become the head of the 1.2 billion Catholics throughout the world. I believe his main aim, as yet unrealized, was to see the reconversion of Europe, which was once the center of the faith. A large portion of cardinals is from Italy, which seems interesting when set alongside the growing number of Catholics in South America and Africa. In those fertile grounds lies much of the hope for a surging and vital faith.