The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI was already on track to be historic. But what will more than secure his place in history is his decision to recognize his human limits and pass along the vital work of leadership to a more physically robust individual. Such selflessness and personal humility is inspirational -- and may well represent Joseph Ratzinger's most profound legacy. His noble gesture shows that he understands that no one person is indispensable, that the office of Successor to St. Peter is so much bigger and more mysterious than any single man, a truth that had become obscured at times by the celebrity status of his charismatic predecessor.
The modern precedent set by Benedict's historic decision to resign may turn out to be a real game changer that has a positive influence on future conclaves and pontificates. Up until this point, the age of the various candidates for Pope has been a closely scrutinized factor that has led to some interesting strategic electoral decisions.
When Angelo Roncalli, for example, was elected Pope John XXIII back in 1958, his advanced age -- 77 -- was regarded as one of his most attractive features. After the two-decade-long reign of Pius XII, the cardinal electors were looking for someone who would be no more than a placeholder, a "caretaker pope." (Never mind that the newly elected pope surprised everyone, defying all expectations by convening the Second Vatican Council.)
The selection of the youthful and athletic Karol Wojtyla, only 58 when he was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978, was a bold move. It is not surprising that he went on to become the second-longest serving pope in history. That very longevity, however, would become a significant problem as he sank into marked infirmity in his later years. The long twilight of his papacy is remembered by many as an era when it seemed as if the Bark of St. Peter had, for the time being, run aground. The decision to replace such a long-serving Pope with the 78-year-old Benedict was a tactical one. As the oldest person to assume the office of the papacy in the past 275 years, Ratzinger was sure to have a far shorter reign than his friend Wojtyla.
But now the pope has generously and creatively changed the usual calculus by setting the modern precedent of being the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign his office. Future pontiffs will certainly have more discretion in this regard. Choosing a 60-year-old in this next round, for example, will not mean that he is doomed to occupy the Vatican for three decades if the accident of his genetic makeup should allow his body to survive to an age beyond which his mind and heart can adequately commit to the job.
In a constantly changing world, the church can ill afford what is for all intents and purposes a condition of sede vacante ("the seat being empty") even though the pope is still technically alive. Benedict has courageously created a new mindset within which such a state of stagnation will be far less likely in the future.
Moreover, Benedict reminds us that in the final analysis, all that really matters is the relationship of the individual soul with his or her God. If Joseph Ratzinger truly believes in the mystery to which he has devoted his intellectual and ministerial career -- and he certainly does -- then he realizes that however exalted one's achievements in this life, all that ultimately matters is the pursuit of personal union with God. That is a project that he will now be free to pursue without distraction.
The docile surrender to the mystery of God that is represented by this generous decision can serve as an edifying example to us all. Hopefully his altruistic and gracious example will inspire whoever emerges from the upcoming conclave as pontiff.
Paul Ginnetty is professor of psychology at Saint Joseph's College in Patchogue and director of the college's Institute for the Study of Religion and Community Life.