The following editorial appeared Tuesday in the Philadelphia Daily News:
When Pope Benedict XVI read a statement Monday announcing that he would resign the papacy on Feb. 28 - the first time something like this has happened in nearly 600 years - the reaction from the cardinals assembled before him was silence. One possible reason: He read the announcement in Latin.
Latin is, of course, the language traditionally used in church business, but it is not actually spoken or used by anyone else in the world.
In decades past, it provided a way for church leaders from around the world to communicate with one another. But Monday, even several of the cardinals could not understand what the pope was saying, a Vatican spokesman said.
The metaphor may be easy, but it's also apt: The church's ancient ways can make it difficult to engage fully with the faithful, and with the modern world in general.
Yet the pope's bold step also serves as testimony to his understanding of modern realities - and for that we have only admiration.
With a recent deterioration in his health, the 85-year-old pontiff concluded that he is no longer capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of the modern papacy, which include not only the spiritual leadership of a billion Catholics, but also world travel and complicated finances.
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current pope observed firsthand the pain and suffering borne by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and how impaired he became.
On more than one occasion, Benedict expressed the opinion that when a pope no longer possesses the strength of mind and body to do the job, it was his right and even his duty to resign.
On Monday, he set an important historic precedent: Although he is the first pope to resign in modern times, he likely won't be the last.
So very soon after the pope retires to a monastery next month, a conclave of cardinals will meet in the Sistine Chapel to choose the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
The last time they met for this purpose, the emergence of Benedict on the balcony of St. Peter's left no doubt that they wanted a "caretaker pope" who would not cause major upheaval. They got that with Benedict.
Pope Benedict did not change the Vatican's response to the priest sexual-abuse scandal that by then had shaken the faithful around the world. In the past eight years the Vatican's response to the crisis has been anything but forthright or forceful.
Pope Benedict's resignation represents an opportunity for a renewed commitment to justice for the victims of abuse. Despite his efforts, the scandal defined Pope Benedict's papacy. It does not have to define the next.