Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the shy German theologian who tried to revive Christianity in a secularized Europe but will forever be remembered as the first pope to resign from office in 600 years, died on Saturday. He was 95.
Benedict stunned the world on February 11, 2013, when he announced in his typically quiet Latin that he no longer had the strength to lead the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church he had ruled through scandal and indifference for eight years .
His dramatic decision paved the way for the conclave that chose Pope Francis to succeed him. The two popes then lived side by side in the Vatican Gardens, an unprecedented arrangement that set the stage for future “popes emeritus” to do the same.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said on Saturday morning: “It is with pain that I announce that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. died today at 9:34 a.m. in the Mater Ecclesia Monastery in the Vatican. More information will be released as soon as possible.”
The former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger never wanted to become pope and at the age of 78 wanted to spend the last years of his life writing in the “quiet” of his Bavarian homeland.
Instead, he was forced to follow in the footsteps of his beloved John Paul II and lead the church through the aftermath of the clergy sex abuse scandal, and then through a second scandal that erupted when his own butler filed his personal papers stole and gave it to a journalist.
Being elected pope, he once said, felt like a “guillotine” had come over him.
Still, he set to work with a single-minded vision to revive faith in a world that, he often lamented, seemed to think it could do without God.
“There is a strange forgetfulness of God in much of the world today,” he said to a million young people who gathered in a huge field for his first trip abroad as Pope for World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. It seems like everything would be the same without him with the old man.”
With some decisive, often controversial moves, he tried to remind Europe of its Christian heritage. And he led the Catholic Church down a conservative, traditional path that often alienated progressives. He eased restrictions on celebrating the ancient Latin Mass and launched a crackdown on American nuns, insisting that the church should remain true to its doctrine and traditions in the face of a changing world. It was a path reversed in many ways by his successor Francis, whose priorities of mercy over morality alienated the traditionalists so spoiled by Benedict.
Benedict’s style could not have been more different than that of John Paul or Francis. Benedict was not a global media darling or populist, but a teacher, theologian and academic through and through: calm and thoughtful with a combative spirit. He spoke in paragraphs, not in bites. He had a soft spot for orange Fanta as well as his beloved library; When he was elected Pope, he had his entire study—as it is—moved from his apartment just outside the Vatican walls to the Apostolic Palace. The books followed him to his retirement home.
“In them are all my advisors,” he said in 2010 in an extensive interview with “Light of the World” about his books. “I know every nook and cranny, and everything has its story.”
It was Benedict’s devotion to history and tradition that endeared him to members of the traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church. For them, even in retirement, Benedict remained a beacon of nostalgia for the Orthodoxy and Latin Mass of their youth—and for the Pope, whom they much preferred to Francis.
In time, this group of archconservatives, whose grievances were amplified by sympathetic conservative Catholic media in the US, became a major source of opposition to Francis, who responded to his threats of partition by reimposing restrictions on the ancient Latin Mass , which Benedikt had loosened.
Like his predecessor John Paul, Benedict made contact with the Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as pope was a letter to Rome’s Jewish community, and he was the second pope in history, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue.
In his 2011 book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict comprehensively exonerated the Jewish people for Christ’s death and explained biblically and theologically why there was no scriptural basis for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus Death.
“It is very clear that Benedict is a true friend of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the American Jewish Committee’s Office of Interfaith Relations, at the time of Benedict’s retirement.
However, Benedict also offended some Jews who were outraged by his constant defense and promotion to the sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope who has been accused by some of not adequately denouncing the Holocaust. And they slammed Benedict when he reversed the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the Holocaust.
Benedict’s relations with the Muslim world were also mixed. He angered Muslims with a speech in September 2006 – five years after the 9/11 attacks in the United States – in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who called some of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings “evil and inhuman”, particularly his command to spread the faith “by the sword”.
Subsequent comment after the massacre of Christians in Egypt prompted the Al-Azhar center in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Muslim scholarship, to cut ties with the Vatican, which were only restored under Francis.
Benedict’s Vatican suffered from notorious PR gaffes, and sometimes Benedict himself was to blame. He enraged the United Nations and several European governments in 2009 when, en route to Africa, he told reporters that condom distribution would not solve the AIDS problem.
“On the contrary, it increases the problem,” Benedict said. A year later, he issued a revision saying that if a male prostitute were to use a condom to avoid transmitting HIV to his partner, he might be taking a first step towards more responsible sexuality.
But Benedict’s legacy was irrevocably colored by the global outbreak of the 2010 sex abuse scandal, despite the fact that as cardinal he was responsible for turning the Vatican on the matter.
Documents showed the Vatican was well aware of the problem but turned a blind eye for decades, sometimes turning away bishops who tried to do the right thing.
Benedict knew the magnitude of the problem firsthand, since his old office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he had headed since 1982, was responsible for handling abuse cases.
In fact, it was he who, before becoming pope, made the then revolutionary decision in 2001 to take responsibility for handling these cases, after realizing that bishops around the world do not punish offenders, only direct them from congregation Move church where they could rape again.
And when he became pope, Benedict essentially reversed his beloved predecessor, John Paul, by fighting the 20th’s most notorious pedophile priest, Maciel. Benedict took over Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order upheld by John Paul as a model of orthodoxy after it was revealed that Maciel had sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.
In retirement, Benedict was criticized by an independent report for his dealings with four priests when he was bishop of Munich; He denied any personal wrongdoing but apologized for any “grave mistakes”.
The abuse scandal for Benedikt had hardly calmed down when another one broke out.
In October 2012, Benedict’s former butler Paolo Gabriele was convicted of grand theft after Vatican police found a huge pile of papal documents in his apartment. Gabriele told Vatican investigators he gave the documents to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi because he thought the pope was not being informed about “evil and corruption” in the Vatican and that exposing it publicly would put the church on the right track .
With the Vatileaks scandal cleared up, including with a papal pardon for Gabriele, Benedict felt free to make the extraordinary decision he had previously hinted at: announcing that he would rather resign than die in office, as everyone does his predecessors had done nearly six centuries.
“After repeated soul-searching before God, I have come to the certainty that my age-related strength is no longer up to the demands of the Pope,” he told the cardinals.
He made his last public appearances in February 2013 and then boarded a helicopter to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo to hold the conclave in private. Benedict then largely kept his word that in retirement he would live a life of prayer, only occasionally emerging from his converted monastery on special occasions and occasionally writing forewords and messages for books.
Usually they were harmless, but a 2020 book – in which Benedict defended the celibate priesthood at a time when Francis was considering an exception – sparked calls for future “popes emeritus” to remain silent.
Despite his very different style and priorities, Francis frequently said having Benedict in the Vatican is like having a “wise grandfather” living at home.
Benedict has often been misunderstood: Dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” by the unsympathetic media, he was actually a very sweet and extremely bright academic who devoted his life to serving the church he loved.
“Thank you for giving us the shining example of the simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard,” said Benedict’s longtime deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, at one of his last public events as pope.
Benedict took on the seemingly impossible task of following in John Paul’s footsteps when he was elected the 265th head of the Church on April 19, 2005. He was the oldest elected Pope in 275 years and the first German in almost 1000 years.
Born on April 16, 1927 in Marktl am Inn in Bavaria, Benedikt wrote in his memoirs how he was accepted into the Nazi youth movement against his will in 1941 at the age of 14 and how membership was compulsory. He left the German Wehrmacht in April 1945, in the final days of the war.
Benedict was ordained a priest together with his brother Georg in 1951. After teaching theology in Germany for a number of years, he was appointed Bishop of Munich in 1977 and three months later by Pope Paul VI. made cardinal.
His brother Georg was a frequent visitor to the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, until his death in 2020. His sister died years earlier. His “papal family” consisted of Monsignor Georg Gänswein, his longtime private secretary who was always at his side, another secretary and consecrated women who looked after the papal apartments.
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