Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the retiring German theologian who attempted to resurrect Christianity in a secularized Europe but will always be remembered as the first pope to resign from office in 600 years, passed away on Saturday. He was 95.
On February 11, 2013, Benedict shocked the world by declaring in his usual soft-spoken Latin that he was no longer able to lead the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church that he had led for eight years through scandal and indifference.
His momentous selection enabled the conclave to choose Pope Francis as his successor. At that time, the two popes coexisted in the Vatican gardens, a first-ever arrangement that paved the way for subsequent “popes emeritus” to follow suit.
“With pain I inform that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed away today at 9:34 in the Mater Ecclesia Monastery in the Vatican,” said Matteo Bruni, a spokesman for the Vatican, in a statement released early on Saturday. More details will be made available as soon as possible.
The Vatican announced that beginning on Monday, Benedict’s remains would be on public display in St. Peter’s Basilica so that the faithful could pay their respects in person.
Joseph Ratzinger, a former cardinal, had no desire to become pope and, at the age of 78, intended to write in the “peace and quiet” of his native Bavaria for the remainder of his days.
Instead, he was forced to follow in the footsteps of St. John Paul II and lead the church through the aftermath of the clerical sex abuse scandal, as well as a second scandal that erupted when his own butler stole he collected his personal papers and gave them to a reporter.
He once remarked that becoming pope felt like a “guillotine” had been dropped on him.
But he set out on his mission with the single-minded goal of reviving faith in a world that, he frequently lamented, seemed to believe it could live without God.
“There is a strange forgetfulness of God today in vast areas of the world,” he told the 1 million young people gathered on a large field for his first foreign trip as pope, to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. It seems that even without him, everything would carry on as usual.
He made an effort to remind Europe of its Christian heritage with some forceful, frequently contentious actions. Additionally, he put the Catholic Church on a traditionalist, conservative course that frequently enraged progressives. In order to maintain the church’s doctrine and traditions in the face of a changing society, he loosened the restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass and started a campaign against American nuns. It was a course that, in many ways, was retraced by Francis, his successor. Francis, whose mercy-over-morals priorities alienated the traditionalists Benedict had so indulged, followed a course that was more focused on compassion.
The differences between Benedict’s style and that of John Paul II or Francis were glaring. Benedict was a teacher, theologian, and academic at his core: quiet and pensive with a sharp mind. He was neither a celebrity in the media nor a populist. Not in soundbites, but in paragraphs, he spoke. When he was elected pope, he had his entire study moved — in its entirety — from his apartment just outside the Vatican walls into the Apostolic Palace. He also had a weakness for orange Fanta and his beloved library. When he retired, the books went with him.
In the book-length interview “Light of the World,” published in 2010, he said of his books, “In them are all my advisers.” “Everything has a history, and I know every nook and cranny.”
The traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church loved Benedict because of his devotion to history and tradition. Even in retirement, Benedict continued to serve as a reminder of the orthodoxy and Latin Mass of their youth for them. He was also the pope they much preferred to Francis.
In due course, this group of arch-conservatives—whose complaints were amplified by sympathetic U.S.-based conservative Catholic media—would emerge as a major source of opposition to Francis, who in response to what he claimed were threats of division reinstituted the restrictions on the old Latin Mass that Benedict had loosed.
Like John Paul before him, Pope Benedict made it a priority to engage with Jews. He wrote a letter to Rome’s Jewish community as his first official act as pope, making him the second pope in history (after John Paul) to enter a synagogue.
Benedict made a thorough exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Christ in his 2011 book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” outlining the biblical and theological reasons why there is no support in Scripture for the claim that the Jewish people as a whole were accountable for Jesus’ death.
When Benedict announced his retirement, Rabbi David Rosen, head of the American Jewish Committee’s office for interreligious relations, said: “It’s very clear Benedict is a true friend of the Jewish people.
However, Benedict also offended some Jews who were furious at his unceasing defense of and promotion of Pope Pius XII toward sainthood, the pope from the World War II era who some claim did not sufficiently denounce the Holocaust. And when Benedict lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the Holocaust, they vehemently criticized him.
Benedict also had a rocky relationship with the Muslim world. Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, he infuriated Muslims with a speech in September 2006 where he quoted a Byzantine emperor who called some of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings “evil and inhuman,” particularly his order to spread the faith “by the sword.”
The Al Azhar center in Cairo, the center of Sunni Muslim learning, suspended relations with the Vatican after making a subsequent statement following the massacre of Christians in Egypt; these relations were only resumed under Francis.
Under Benedict, the Vatican made a number of well-known PR mistakes, sometimes with Benedict’s involvement. In 2009, while traveling to Africa, he infuriated the UN and a number of European governments by telling reporters that the solution to the AIDS epidemic did not lie in the distribution of condoms.
Benedict argued that it only makes the issue worse. A year later, he released a revision in which he suggested that using a condom to prevent HIV transmission to a partner might be the first step toward a more responsible sexuality for a male prostitute.
Even though Benedict was instrumental in getting the Vatican to change its position on the matter as a cardinal, the global sex abuse scandal that erupted in 2010 left an irrevocable mark on his legacy.
Documents showed that the Vatican was well aware of the issue but chose to ignore it for many years, at times rejecting bishops who attempted to do the right thing.
Since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict had led since 1982, was in charge of handling abuse cases, he had firsthand knowledge of the extent of the issue.
In fact, he was the one who, prior to being elected pope, made the ground-breaking choice to take on the processing of those cases in 2001 after realizing bishops around the world weren’t punishing abusers instead were simply moving them from parish to parish where they could rape again.
And once he was elected pope, Benedict essentially reversed the actions of his adored predecessor, John Paul, by taking action against the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the most notorious priest pedophile of the 20th century. After it was discovered that Maciel had sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children, Benedict took over Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious organization that John Paul had praised as an example of orthodoxy.
In his retirement, Benedict was criticized for how he handled four priests when he served as the bishop of Munich; he denied any wrongdoing on his part but apologized for any “grievous faults.”
As soon as Benedict’s abuse scandal subsided, another one broke out.
Paolo Gabriele, Benedict’s former butler, was found guilty of aggravated theft in October 2012 after Vatican police discovered a sizable cache of papal papers in his apartment. Gabriele informed Vatican investigators that he gave the papers to Gianluigi Nuzzi because he believed the pope was unaware of the “evil and corruption” within the Vatican and that making it known to the public would help the church turn things around.
Benedict felt free to make the extraordinary choice he had previously hinted at once the “Vatileaks” scandal was resolved, including with a papal pardon of Gabriele. Benedict announced that he would resign rather than pass away in office as all his predecessors had done for nearly six centuries.
He said to the cardinals, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to advanced age are no longer suited to the demands of being the pope. I have repeatedly examined my conscience before God.”
In order to attend the conclave in private, he made his last public appearances in February 2013 before boarding a helicopter and traveling to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo. Then, Benedict mostly adhered to his promise to lead a life of prayer after retiring, leaving his converted monastery only occasionally for important occasions and occasionally penning book prefaces and messages.
However, one 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 keep quiet. Usually, they were harmless.
Francis frequently remarked that having Benedict in the Vatican was like having a “wise grandfather” living at home, despite the fact that their priorities and styles were very different.
Benedict was frequently misunderstood. Although the media called him “God’s Rottweiler,” he was actually a very kind and brilliant academic who dedicated his life to serving the church he cherished.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict’s longtime deputy, expressed gratitude to him at one of his final public events by saying, “Thank you for having given us the luminous example of the simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
When Benedict was chosen as the 265th head of the Church on April 19, 2005, he inherited the seemingly impossible task of carrying on John Paul’s legacy. He was the first German pope in almost 1,000 years, and the oldest pope elected in 275 years.
Benedict, who was born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl Am Inn, Bavaria, wrote in his memoirs that he was forced into joining the Nazi youth movement in 1941 when he was 14 years old because membership was required. In April 1945, during the closing months of the war, he deserted the German army.
In 1951, Benedict and his brother Georg both received ordination. He spent several years in Germany teaching theology before being named Munich’s bishop in 1977. Three months later, Pope Paul VI promoted him to cardinal.
Until his passing in 2020, his brother Georg frequently traveled to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. Years earlier, his sister passed away. Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, his longtime personal secretary, another secretary, and consecrated women who looked after the papal apartment made up his “papal family,” who were always by his side.