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February 11, 2013 at 1:02 PM

The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI

(Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

What if the legacy of the pope who revived the all Latin Mass was the installation of the first black pontiff?

Pope Benedict XVI rocked the Catholic world Monday with his announcement he would resign as of 8 p.m., Feb. 28. He would be the first pope to step down since Gregory XII in 1415.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005. His elevation by the College of Cardinals followed the death of John Paul II, who gained a kind of rock-star status in nearly three decades of leading the planet’s one billion Roman Catholics. John Paul, a Pole, was the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.

Benedict, the first German pope in nearly 500 years, had a tough act. John Paul circled the globe with more than 100 papal excursions. Benedict stayed closer to the Vatican, more comfortable in the role of scholarly, conservative theologian. He proclaimed the primacy of Christianity and the traditional Catholic expression of the faith, and affirmed the leadership of an all-male, celibate priesthood, and church doctrine in contemporary social issues. Benedict poked Muslims, Jews and Anglicans.

The Catholic Church has seen extraordinary growth in Africa and more than 40 percent of Catholics live in Latin America. Is the moment long overdue for a non-European face at the head of the church? Gregory XII resigned in 1415 in what was described as the Great Western Schism. Rival popes and a church looking for a permanent home.

Benedict is resigning as pontiff as the church has something akin to a North-South schism. Without the drama of the ancient meeting at Lake Constance, the church sees its membership growing in the southern hemisphere, away from the traditional northern seat of power. The name of Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is floated as a candidate. He currently presides over the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Other names mentioned are Cardinal Marc Quellet of Canada, and Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria. Turkson and Arinze are black.

The church is a human institution doing God’s work, and someone will acknowledge its audience and potential market share. The College of Cardinals has an opportunity to pick leadership that not only reflects the beliefs of its faith, but looks like those believers filling the pews.

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