Benedict achieved what few manage - to voluntarily give up power with grace
In a few chapters, my image of the doctrinaire disciplinarian disappeared, and was replaced forever by the subtle, astute, wise teacher who presents ideas and allows the student to wrestle with them.
Ah, you might say, that was just early Ratzinger, before he became ultra-cautious and conservative. But it is in tune with everything he has written since. His first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is a meditation on the nature of love and service.
Benedict reaffirms the central place of justice for the poor, but also of love. “. . . Human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern.”
He also possesses a wry sense of humour.
Asked in 1997 if he believed the pope was directly selected by the Holy Spirit, he commented: “I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope . . . I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us . . . Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”
No doubt that wry sense of humour came in useful more than once when he became pope, as he was reduced by many media commentators to a set of stereotypes – homophobic, woman-hating, a shelterer of child abusers.
All were wildly inaccurate caricatures, but the last was particularly unjust, given that since 2002 he has been to the forefront of attempting to come to terms with this great scandal, and to root out what he termed the “filth” in the church.
Yet when people encountered him at closer quarters, he dispersed the negative stereotypes.
His visit to Britain in 2010 was a triumph. His speech in Westminster was typical of the motifs of this papacy – the relationship between faith, reason and modernity.
Perhaps Benedict was too much of an intellectual for this soundbite age. And yet, like all great teachers, perhaps he will teach best by his actions rather than his words.
There are few who can voluntarily renounce power, yet he has managed it with grace.
His resignation was surprising, innovative, flexible – all the things this writer signally failed to see on the day he became pope, and which became so obvious when I bothered to research what he wrote, said and did, rather than what others reported about him.