Benedict’s reign was never expected to be groundbreaking. He certainly realized that he could not aspire to play the same historic role as his predecessor, who was a key player in the collapse of communism in his native Poland and elsewhere, and whose charisma and seemingly boundless energy broadened the church’s appeal far beyond the traditional Christian Western world and to young people everywhere. …

Benedict’s papacy never shook the perception that he was presiding over an unremarkable period in the life of the church. Now, though, with one dramatic decision he has changed his place in history—and perhaps he will change how those who hold high office without term limits see their own futures. It’s worth remembering that in 1966 Pope Paul VI introduced a retirement age of 75 for bishops and archbishops. If the U.S. Senate had a similar rule, 10 of its current members would have retired by now.

By stepping down, Benedict is teaching us all about recognizing one’s own limits at a time when more people than ever are living to a very old age. It isn’t the number of years that matters as much as the energy and capabilities each of us has left. And there can be no greater tribute to the institution a leader serves than recognizing when the moment to step down is here. That’s exactly what Benedict will be remembered for.