Pope John Paul II is proving to be a hard act to follow. His successor, Benedict XVI, has tried since his election in 2005 to maintain the hectic pace of public appearances and world travel set by John Paul. On Monday, he announced he could not do it any longer. At age 85, he is unlikely to recover the strength and vigour he brought to the papacy seven years ago. He will quit at the end of February.
The cardinals who will assemble in Rome in March to pick a successor will need to consider what this means. The papacy has turned into such a demanding task that Benedict felt compelled to break with long tradition and resign rather than continue bearing the burden of office until his death. If they are going to keep the papacy as it is, the cardinals may have a tough time finding someone suited for the papal crown who is both physically able to bear the burden and willing to take it on.
The 27-year reign of John Paul II, the former Karol Wojtyla, transformed public expectations of a pope. An actor by training and a master of public spectacle, he offered his personal presence as a means of spreading the Christian Gospel and the Roman Catholic faith to all nations. The moments and the places of his 1984 visit to Winnipeg are still treasured by the public. Innumerable other cities across the world were touched in the same way. When the German theologian Joseph Ratzinger succeeded him as Benedict XVI, there was no turning back. Catholics and others were demanding papal visits.
The Bishop of Rome must discharge both the dignified and the efficient duties of leadership, as the journalist Walter Bagehot described them a century-and-a-half ago in the governance of Britain. The U.K. gave the dignified work to the monarch and the efficient work to the prime minister, and each bears a tolerable burden. The Pope is both a spiritual leader, upholding Catholic values in a world sometimes unwilling to hear about them, and also an administrative leader, deciding whom to elevate and whom to discipline among the priests and bishops who serve the church. Benedict's reign suggests that a single person can no longer do all of this well.
While Benedict's attention was turned elsewhere, the Irish church, to take one example, got into a terrible pickle over sexual abuse of children. Benedict sent teams of investigators to see what was up in the Irish church. After two years of interviews, they confirmed that the bishops had for years been covering up sexual abuse by priests. But by then the damage was done, and the church had lost much of its moral authority in Ireland. When it came time to reduce the Irish government's expenses, the embassy to the Vatican was closed. The church still matters in Ireland, but not the way it used to. Across Europe and the United States, the hierarchy's failure to recognize, diagnose and deal with the church's sexual-abuse problem continues to mock and undermine its mission of moral leadership.
A man of Benedict's enormous intellectual gifts might be able to take hold of the issue, personally denounce the laggards among bishops and compel them to purge clergy ranks of sexual abusers. Instead, the church on his watch has continued to focus on the terrible danger of unfair or unfounded abuse accusations and has laid on seminaries the responsibility of weeding out the potential sexual predators before ordination. This approach scarcely matches the scope of the problem, but one pope can only do so much.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the distinguished educator who was formerly Archbishop of Quebec, was mentioned in 2005 as a possible successor to John Paul II and is being mentioned again as a possible successor to Benedict. At 68, he should not be considered too old for the post, but having watched the toll it took on Benedict, he could be forgiven for asking that this cup should pass from him.