Pope Benedict XVI had many critics. But then the spiritual leader of more than a billion people, the occupant of one of the most influential chairs on Earth, would have – no matter who he is.

The papacy’s global reach makes it one of the most scrutinised offices in the world, with every nook of the incumbent’s life and career, and each move, word or gesture, examined for suitability to this powerful office and readings of where he is taking the Roman Catholic Church.

So it has been with the man known eight years ago as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In his time at the Vatican the distasteful issue of child abuse by the priesthood exploded. It erupted in various parts of the world, and found him accused of actively concealing such sin by churchmen and failing to show sufficient leadership against them.

Popes are also judged, as Ratzinger has been, by their attitudes towards modernising the church and building bridges with other creeds. Verdicts hinge on the outlooks of the analysts, but he was widely viewed as deeply conservative and less the reformer.

Benedict XVI was a scholarly leader, intense. Perhaps he lacked the charisma to achieve more than he did in his goal of awakening Christianity in Europe.

But maybe his departure, almost a revolutionary act in becoming the first pontiff to step down voluntarily since Pope Celestine V in 1294, gave the church a gift.

At 85 years of age, arthritic Benedict XVI felt he was becoming unequal to his duties. Identifying his own frailty, then acknowledging it to himself and acting on it in such a bold way, was commendable. He relinquishes office on February 28, implementing his biggest reform at the end of his term.

It came as a surprise, allowing less room for tension, politics and jostling in succession in the Holy See. And if it starts a trend, where pontiffs exude energy and dynamism for self-determined terms, it could turn out to be valuable legacy.