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Benedict XVI's Resignation Undoes the Damage of John Paul II's Final Period

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By resigning, rather than dying in office, Pope Benedict has at last earned his place in the history books alongside his predecessor, making a unique contribution that no one could have imagined.

Ever since he took over from John Paul II, he suffered from comparisons with the latter's charisma. JPII was the people's pope - travelling to where people were at, both physically and emotionally. Even though Benedict XVI may have had greater intellectual gifts, he could never hope to rival JPII's place in the affections of the Catholic faithful.

Yet if there was one great flaw in John Paul II's papacy - and that of some of his predecessors - it was the way in which it deteriorated. By remaining pope until his death, he changed from being an active vibrant religious leader into a virtual effigy of himself.

I was invited to an audience with him in the Vatican in 1999, and my pleasure at meeting him was outweighed by the shock at seeing how exhausted he was. He hardly moved and spoke woodenly. It was a credit to his will-power that he forced himself to undertake such duties, but it would have been far better to have admitted that he was no longer able to do so.

However, resigning was inconceivable - not just because of his own personal attitude, but because no pope had resigned for several centuries. Even when last pope did so - Gregory XII in 1415 - it was for political motives, so as to resolve a schism, rather than health reasons.

In some ways, this inability to admit personal limits was a form of religious hubris, whether by the popes themselves or by a church that expected service until their dying breath. Going to a formal meeting with John Paul II when he was so unwell seemed not only immoral but also religiously dangerous. It was as if the doctrine of papal infallibility was being transformed into a notion of papal immortality.

It is a welcome relief that Benedict XVI has chosen to depart from this suffocating approach - suffocating both for the individuals popes who unable to retire, and suffocating for the church when it was headed by a leader who was not fully functioning. Instead Benedict has had the courage to highlight human frailties and put the interests of his flock before the deeply flawed tradition of perpetual ability.

It is also astonishing that someone so often described as an arch-conservative should have taken such a radical step and created such a break with tradition. Perhaps it was a move that could only have been taken by someone whose theological orthodoxy is beyond question. At the same time he has created a precedent for countless successors, who will now be able to imitate his example should they so wish.

Two questions remain. First, as the 'right-hand man' of John Paul II, was his decision influenced by the experience of seeing the latter's decline at close quarters? It is hard to imagine not. Second, is his decision an indirect indictment of John Paul II continuing to the very last? Benedict XVI would probably be sufficiently loyal to say that different popes serve God in different ways. However, to outsiders it is hard not to think that he has shown a far better example of religious leadership by stepping down.

Far from disappearing from history as the person who lived in the shadow of JPII, Pope Benedict has now shone in his own right.

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