Ever since Pope Francis became the leader of the Catholic Church last year, he has been showered with attention for how much his leadership has changed perceptions of the institution. His acts of humility, his simple lifestyle and his welcoming ways have dramatically altered the Church's image in a radically short period of time. Just one year into his papacy, books have already been written celebrating his leadership style. Time Magazine named him Person of the Year.
All that praise for Francis's role in leading the Church into a new era is deserving. But one year after Pope Benedict XVI, Francis's predecessor, made the shocking decision to resign from the papacy, the Vatican has been stressing another act of leadership that led Francis to his position in the first place.
Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, who holds the unusual position of being both Benedict's private secretary and the head of Pope Francis's household, said as much earlier this week. Gaenswein told Vatican Television Center that Benedict's resignation was an “act of great courage, even a revolutionary act, which opened up possibilities that no one at that moment could see.”
The Twitter account for Pope Francis called Benedict "a man of great courage and humility." And last weekend, the Associated Press reported that Benedict's personal theologian, Cardinal Georges Cottier, said his "shy and reserved character" did not reveal the humble man he was.
Even if there is a P.R. effort in here somewhere, there's little question in hindsight that Benedict's startling decision to step aside did lead the way to great change. On Feb. 11, 2013, he announced that he didn't have the "strength of mind and body" to hold the job. It was the first time in more than half a millennium that a pope had resigned from office. By definition, then, it was an unusual choice and one quite difficult to make.
In doing so, Benedict could not have known who would follow him — Francis was not elected for another month — or what kind of change the next pope would bring.
Still, in making a decision that no pope had made for more than 600 years, he would have known that history might judge him harshly. He would have known that he risked being seen as abandoning the challenges the church faced, as his tenure was marked by scandals and crises. He would have known he was ending his opportunity to manage the governance reforms the church so badly needed. (Then again, that perhaps wasn't so attractive to an intellectual pope whose idea of hell, according to a Vatican insider quoted in one report, was getting "sent on a one-week management training seminar.")
Finally, because Benedict voluntarily passed the baton to a successor, he would have known to expect criticism by some for disrupting tradition. Whatever Benedict's legacy as a leader might ultimately be, he's a reminder that sometimes the most meaningful way to lead is to know when it's time to leave.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.