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Despite Troubled Papacy, Benedict’s Resignation May Seal His Legacy

Despite Troubled Papacy, Benedict’s Resignation May Seal His Legacyi
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March 09, 2013 10:08 PM
VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky visited a church in central Italy where something Benedict did several years ago foreshadowed what may end up being seen as a radical decision

Despite Troubled Papacy, Benedict’s Resignation May Seal His Legacy

For decades, German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Roman Catholic Church's enforcer of doctrine. But as Pope Benedict the Sixteenth, he struggled to keep a lid on clerical sex scandals and other Vatican controversies. Still he may be best remembered for his resignation.

As a place to kick around a soccer ball or just to slow life down a little, the church of Santa Maria di Collemaggio is the place to be on a Sunday morning in the Italian city of L’Aquila.

The church is dedicated to Celestine V, who became pope in 1294. Although he resigned after just six months, Giuliana Masci says Celestine is a hero to residents.

"For us he was a very great pope, because back then there was lots of corruption in the church, and he had the courage to say, 'No,'" says a woman.

This picturesque town in the shadow of the snowcapped Apennine mountains is still recovering from an earthquake in 2009.

Santa Maria di Collemaggio was devastated, and Benedict came to visit it shortly afterward. He left his pallium - a symbol of papal authority - on Celestine’s tomb.

Celestine himself was imprisoned, but retired Lieutenant General Andrea Michele Lusa is confident Benedict will be remembered as a man with "a deep knowledge of the theological aspects of the church, that is to say, a great thinker, but very humble and with no show of superiority."

Celestine’s remains have been moved to a lab and his reputation is being re-examined.

When Celestine resigned it was not looked upon favorably. He’s believed to be the cowardly man portrayed at the gates of Hell by the Italian poet Dante. But it’s possible that Benedict’s legacy will be different.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter already calls Benedict "one of the great teaching popes.”

"His encyclicals, his speeches on his foreign trips, the three books he’s published as pope... I think those things will be read in graduate seminars and in seminaries and in Catholic circles for centuries," he said.

Some Catholics fault Benedict for the scandals and secularization that plagued the church during his papacy, and he failed to muster the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II.

"But I think the resignation, the very humble way that he has relinquished power and in some ways the very courageous way that he’s decided to step aside has created some space for people do distinguish between the papacy and the pope. I mean, they may still have some substantive issues with the papacy, but I think there’s a tendency to look more generously upon the pope," said Allen.

Castel Gandolfo has always been a place to sit at a café in the shadow of the pope’s summer palace outside Rome. But even more people come now that the pope emeritus has sequestered himself there during the transition.

This boy’s older sister thinks Benedict’s final act will make him a great pope.

"I think he will be remembered for this abdication. I think it is very significant," she said.

As the shopkeepers of this resort say "grazie" (thank you!) to Benedict, the spotlight remains on a papal resignation that may leave its mark for centuries to come.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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