Pope Benedict is no longer the Pope. For the first time in 700 years the Catholic Church is without a Pope due not to a natural death, but to a resignation. Most people have been focusing on the novelty of such a moment, since no one has lived through such a thing for centuries. Truly, in that sense it is unique and the Church is now journeying through uncharted waters.
There is one other aspect of this however that I would like to emphasize. With the resignation of Benedict, formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger, we now have only one world leader left who lived through the Second World War: Queen Elizabeth II. Yet even her experiences were as a defender of Britain and not as a citizen living under Nazi Germany. The German Ratzinger had first hand experience of living under Nazi rule, as well as the carnage and deprivations caused by that war. He was not as severely affected as was John Paul II, who lived under both Nazi and Soviet tyranny for decades, and whose own life was in constant danger under such systems, but Ratzinger did experience life in Germany under Hitler. As a young man he was forced to join the Hitler youth, and after the defeat of Germany he had to live through the post war divisions of Europe. Now, with Ratzinger stepping down, there is no one left with any sort of political or moral power, save the Queen of England, who has any first hand knowledge of the Second War War, of Nazism, and the carnage of that time.
And given that the Queen is a mere figurehead, the abdication of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, is really the end of the War World II era.
So now for the first time since 1933, there is no leader left, someone who could actually shape events such as a Pope, who has first hand knowledge of Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany and the War. Ratzinger was truly the last. It seems fitting that a not only a Pope, the leader of this vast and ancient institution known as the Catholic Church, an institution that has experienced everything from Roman Emperors to medieval kings, to Soviet dictators, but also a German should be the last world figure with such a real and concrete memory of that time.
The world is changing and evolving, and how the Church will move forward now that the last of the post-war Popes has retired, will be a fascinating thing to watch. All of us have been shaped in one way or another by the consequences of the Second World War, an event that directly shaped Raztinger’s personality and undoubtedly his theological views as well. But today the world is very different than it was in 1939-1945; we are living through strange but exciting times and how a new Catholic leadership, untouched by direct experiences of Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Second World War, will act is anyone’s guess. Only God knows.