Three days ago, on April 16, we celebrated an event that wasn't unprecedented but is certainly rare—indeed, it hasn't been observed in over 700 years: the birthday of a retired pope. And now we observe another rare event: the anniversary of the election of that same Pope Emeritus.
Eight years ago today, on April 19, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger entered the second day of the conclave convened after the death of Pope John Paul II, and emerged as the successor of the man he had served faithfully for almost a quarter of a century. In a fascinating thread tying the 2005 conclave to the 2013 one, Pope Benedict XVI was elected after Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio begged the cardinal-electors who had been voting for him to cast their votes for Cardinal Ratzinger instead. (Another detail from the 2005 conclave is fascinating if true: Respected Italian Vaticanist Andrea Tornielli has reported that Cardinal Ratzinger entered the 2005 conclave intending to support the man who would become Pope Francis.)
In 2005, most Vatican watchers, and perhaps even a majority of the cardinal-electors, expected Pope Benedict to be a "transitional pope." That turned out to be true, though not in the way that they meant it. They thought that Pope Benedict would mark time, perhaps consolidating the legacy of Pope John Paul II, but certainly not extending it very far, much less creating a legacy of his own.
They were wrong. As I wrote in the wake of Pope Benedict's announcement of his resignation, "he has thrown himself enthusiastically into his pontificate, accomplishing more in just under eight years than many other popes have in twice that long."
On the seventh anniversary of Pope Benedict's election, I summarized those accomplishments, which included at that time
three encyclicals; over a thousand homilies and addresses; three major books; over 20 trips abroad; the restoration of the Traditional Latin Mass as one of the two forms of the Roman Rite; the revised English translation of the Novus Ordo; the establishment of procedures to bring Anglicans back into the Catholic Church; overtures to the Orthodox Churches; the lifting of the excommunications on the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X and the patient pursuit of full unity between the SSPX and Rome.
I have no hesitation in predicting that, 50 years from now (or perhaps even sooner), both Catholics and non-Catholics alike will look back at the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI and see it as a turning point in the Catholic Church, the time in which the "spirit of Vatican II" was finally laid to rest in favor of the hermeneutic of continuity; in which the liturgical excesses of the 70's and 80's were reined it, and dignity restored to the Novus Ordo; in which great strides were made in Christian unity, in part (especially with regard to the Orthodox) because of the restoration of the Traditional Latin Mass and the clarification of the Church's teaching on ecclesiology; in which the scourge of clerical sexual abuse was dealt with once and for all, allowing the Church to get on with the business of saving souls.
The Catholic Church is stronger today than at any other point in my lifetime (I was born in 1968). And that is in no small part the result of the actions of Pope Benedict XVI. Let us pause today, on this anniversary of his election, and thank him for that.
(Pope Benedict XVI at the announcement of his election. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)