Benedict’s departure, after almost eight years as Pope and a quarter of a century as John Paul II’s right-hand man as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, marks the end of a notable era in church history.
The newcomer, for example, will be a post-Vatican II pope in the sense that he will be unlikely to have attended the Vatican II Council (1962-65) as a theologian.
Benedict and John Paul II have been outstanding teachers. Their encyclicals and books on everything from faith and family to history and society made a deep impression on millions of people within and outside the church.
More important, he locked in the liturgical reforms initiated under John Paul II, including the new English translation of the mass that has been well accepted in Australia, the US, Britain and elsewhere. Determined to restore a more prayerful, transcendent atmosphere at mass, he led by example, distributing Holy Communion to the faithful on the tongue, when they were kneeling. Modern church rules also allow reception of Communion standing up and into the hand.
Benedict is a man who thinks in decades and centuries, and one of his most significant legacies will unfold as the Ordinariate he established for Anglicans to unite with the Catholic Church while retaining their own traditions of worship and music gathers strength. Ultimately, this has the potential to usher in unprecedented unity in the English-speaking Christian world, reversing some of the damaging split caused by the English Reformation that began under Henry VIII. Around the world, former Anglican bishops, priests, congregations and individuals have found their way back to Rome since November 2009 when Benedict announced the creation of a special “personal Ordinariate” to welcome them back into full communion.