When George Washington disappointed his many supporters by resigning as our first President rather than retaining the office for his lifetime, he not only put America on a course for sustainable democracy -- he provided an exemplar of servant leadership that up until that point in history could not have been imagined. Upon hearing the news that Washington had voluntarily stepped down, King George III of England -- yes, the very same England which Washington had defeated in America's Revolution -- said that the act "placed [Washington] in a light the most distinguished of any man living" and called him "the greatest character of the age." Driven by a vision of a new republic, Washington realized that the greatest act of leadership would be to relinquish it.
I am struck by that same thought as I read the text of Pope Benedict XVI's speech earlier this morning in Rome. At a time when it is all too easy to count our worries, it is hard for me to imagine the responsibility and challenge that must come with trying to lead a 2,000-year-old organization with 1.2 billion members. I would submit to you that whether you are Catholic or not, or even vaguely religious or not, there is something in Benedict's act worth reflecting on. It is, at its core, a supreme act of humility, courage, and leadership.
And if you are Catholic, or used to be, or somewhat consider yourself to be, you might find that three minutes reading his speech and another three minutes reflecting on it offer some unexpected inspiration.
For more on Washington, see Founding Father by Brookhiser or The Founding Father by Johnson. For coverage of the papacy, I highly recommend the blog Whispers in the Loggia by Rocco Palmo.