It is too soon for obituaries, and we have come not to bury Pope Benedict XVI but simply to praise him.

The first pope in 600 years to resign from office, he faced many challenges during his nearly eight years in office. Perhaps his first challenge was simply the fact that he was following in the footsteps of one of the Church’s great leaders, the charismatic Pope John Paul II. In many ways, they could not have been more different. One was a Polish philosopher, a former actor who was an extrovert’s extrovert, energized by his travels and the people he met. His writings were tough sledding for many, but his ability to connect with people — one on one or in mass events — was legendary.  

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI kisses a child as he leaves a general audience in St. Peter’s Square. CNS

The other, Pope Benedict, his closest collaborator for 15 years as head of the doctrinal congregation, was often seen as his alter ego, the infamous Panzer Kardinal who silenced theologians and brooked no dissent. 

This was a media stereotype, of course — one that was believable when he was not in the limelight. But once Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became pope, what we discovered was an introverted German intellectual, a man whose writing was perhaps the most accessible of any pope, whose elegant and precise prose was the product of a sharp and intellectually generous mind. We discovered a theologian pope from Bavaria who, in his first volume on Jesus of Nazareth, demanded that his writing be judged and debated on its own merits and not because a pope had written them. Perhaps no other pope in history had so humbly written these lines: “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium. ... Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.” 

Benedict was a pope of many surprises for the attentive student. His encyclicals on charity, hope and truth demand continued study.

He was a pope of many surprises for the attentive student. His encyclicals on charity, hope and truth demand continued study. His first was on love, and it was so moving because it was so unexpected by many. His second, on the saving power of Christian hope, was directed at modern men and women who wonder if there can be hope in a world so broken and deluded by the false gods of the modern age. A tremendously optimistic encyclical, it was followed in turn by Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”). This was more challenging in construction and content, and in some ways his most radical, particularly for American readers used to making mountains out of ideological molehills and thus unprepared for his bracing social vision steeped in European Catholic thought about justice and truth. 

But there were other surprises in store. His books about Jesus were amazingly well received, but so were the many books capturing his speeches and talks. His weekly audience addresses were an engaging survey of Catholic thought and the republication of these talks enjoyed wide success. 

And his travel, for a man in his 80s, was extraordinary. Although he had fewer events packed into his days when he traveled, and he moved more slowly, he made his presence felt around the world. His trip to the United States in 2008 was a masterpiece, as was his trip to England in 2010. He met with abuse victims (the first pope ever to do so), he challenged bishops and he embraced the laity, believers and nonbelievers alike. This was no panzer, but it was a papal blitzkrieg nonetheless as he won over the skeptical secular media and excited ordinary Catholics. 

One will not be able to write about his pontificate for a long while without mentioning the clergy abuse scandal. While it did not start with him, nor will it finish with him, in many ways he is most identified with it. The hectoring observations of the secular media and the shrill condemnations of his critics risk obscuring the truth: that Pope Benedict was perhaps the most knowledgeable man in the Church when it came to knowing the extent of the abuse crisis, the result of his years of reviewing the cases as head of the doctrinal congregation. He introduced changes that allowed the Church to move more quickly against priest abusers. He also moved against the powerful and corrupt founder of the Legionnaires of Christ.  

There will be much for others to examine in his pontificate — his efforts to restore Catholic and Christian unity by reaching out to the traditionalists and the Orthodox; his promotion of the New Evangelization, the Year of Faith, the Year of Priests and the Year of St. Paul; his proposal of the Courtyard of the Gentiles and other efforts to evangelize a de-Christianized and rudderless Europe; his underappreciated environmentalism. 

For now, we can only say that he earned first our respect and then our love and deep appreciation, and he will be missed. Now is the time when all Catholics, regardless of our divisions, should pray first for our retiring pontiff, and then for his successor. These remain challenging times, with many threats. May the Holy Spirit guide the cardinals as they prepare to select the next successor to Peter, the Servant of the Servants of God. 

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor