Pope Benedict XVI's unprecedented announcement today that he will resign Feb. 28 brings to a close one of the shortest papacies in history, for which the pontiff will leave a legacy as a leader with views in line with church tradition, but also as one who worked during a controversial reign to advance religious links cross the globe.
The pope's decision, which he announced in Latin today during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, makes him the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years. It was perhaps the most shocking moment of his nearly eight years as leader of the world's roughly 1 billion Catholics, years in which he worked on religious outreach.
"I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam," Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger's spokesman said today. "During his period, there were the best relations ever between the church and the chief rabbinate and we hope that this trend will continue."
Horst Seehofer, minister-president of the German state of Bavaria, where Benedict was born as Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger 85 years ago, echoed the sentiments about his work for the greater good, adding that Benedict had a global reach.
"With his charisma and his tireless work for the good of the Church, the Pope from Bavaria has inspired people all over the world," he said.
Such global reach and efforts to reach the masses resulted recently in a new Twitter account, which the Vatican launched in late-2012. But true to his traditional worldview, he cautioned the world's Catholics at his Christmas 2012 Mass about the risk of technology's pushing God out of their lives.
"The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full," he said.
Benedict XVI was the oldest pope to be elected at age 78 on April 19, 2005. He was the first German pope since the 11th century and his reign will rank as one of the shortest in history at seven years, 10 months and three days.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415.
Vatican officials said they've noticed that he has been getting weaker, while Benedict said he is aware of the significance of his decision and made it freely.
He was widely seen as a Catholic conservative who was in line with the politics of his predecessor, Pope John Paul, and Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Dimitriy Sizonenko pointed out today that the Vatican is unlikely to move away from that tradition.
"There are no grounds to expect that there will be any drastic changes in the Vatican's policies," he said. "In its relations with Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church has always ensured continuity between Popes."
Benedict did court controversy, memorably with his speech in September 2006 at the University of Regensburg, in which he quoted a remark about Islam by Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos that some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad are "evil and inhuman."
A number of Islamic leaders around the world saw the remarks as an insult and mischaracterization of the religion. Mass protests ensued, notably in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Benedict soon apologized.
John Thavis, former Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service and author of an upcoming book about the Vatican called "Vatican Diaries," said Catholics will remember him as a gentle and very deep teacher.
"I think the outside world will probably have a different impression of this pope," he said. "I think they will remember him as someone who probably found it hard to govern the church in the face of the scandals that the church has experienced over the last several years."
During his papacy, Benedict was forced to address accusations that priests had sexually abused boys, a scandal that hit in the United States more than a decade ago and soon spread across Europe.
As the Catholic church was rattled by such allegations, the Vatican published "Criteria for the Discernment of Vocation for Persons with Homosexual Tendencies."
It was widely viewed as the church's response to the worldwide scandal, but was also criticized for drawing a connection between pedophilia and homosexuality.
In 2008, the pope said the clergy sex abuse scandal in the United States made him feel "deeply ashamed." In 2010, Benedict apologized directly to victims and their families in Ireland.
"You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry," he wrote to victims of child sex abuse by clergy in Ireland.
Benedict had plenty of critics during his papacy over what was perceived as archaic views on contraception. In March 2009, he commented that condoms are not the solution to the AIDS crisis, and can make the problem worse. He revised the comments in 2010, saying that male prostitutes who use condoms might be taking a first step toward a more responsible sexuality.
More controversy came in 2010, when, in what is seen as a gesture to traditional Catholics, Benedict removed restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass. The old rites include a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews.
The year 2012 brought the "Vatileaks" scandal in which Benedict's former butler Paolo Gabriele was convicted of stealing the pope's private papers from his apartments and leaking them to a journalist, who published them in a best-selling book. Gabriele was sentenced to 18 months in an Italian prison.
Speaking today, Cardinal Donald Wuerl Archbishop of Washington said the pope's willingness to step aside is a sign of character
"I think it's a sign of the great humility of this pope and his love of the church and his courage," he said.
The role Benedict will play in retirement, as well as any enduring legacy of his brief but busy papacy, might be his love for the church, his humility or his courage. Or, perhaps, it has yet to be clearly understood.