IN THE Sistine Chapel, under Michelangelo’s vast fresco of God and man reaching out to one another, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger uttered a silent prayer: “Please don’t do this to me.”
During the Conclave in 2005 to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II, the cardinal, once known as “God’s rottweiler” for his defence of the Catholic Church’s doctrine, had seen the votes rise in his favour and feared being crushed by the weight of the papacy.
As he later joked: “Evidently, this time He didn’t listen to me.”
Heralded by plumes of white smoke, he stepped out on to the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square as Pope Benedict XVI, no longer the rottweiler – but, to the 1.1 billion Catholics around the world, a German shepherd.
Yesterday, he laid the crook down and announced that another would tend to the flock.
While Pope John Paul II said resignation was impossible, comparing it to a father resigning from his children, Pope Benedict XVI, who lived through the long winter of John Paul II’s decline to Parkinson’s disease and the paralysis it brought to the Vatican, clearly believes in stepping aside to let a healthier, more able man tackle the myriad of issues currently facing the Catholic Church.
Yet what has Benedict XVI achieved in the eight years since 19 April, 2005, when God turned a deaf ear, and yesterday, when He re-exerted his will?
By comparison with the rock-star charisma of his predecessor, Benedict XVI’s papacy was always going to be shorter and quieter. As the second most prominent figure in the Vatican, after John Paul II, he was chosen to provide stability and continuity with little prospect of any surprises.
He was never going to be Pope John XXIII, who heralded the Second Vatican Council in 1962 and announced that he was opening the windows to renew the Church. By comparison, Benedict has been accused of trying to close the windows by making the Tridentine, or Latin Mass, more easily accessible.
He attempted to build bridges with the Society of St Pius X, who split from the Church after Vatican II, and lifted excommunications on four bishops, which proved controversial when Bishop Richard Williamson was accused of being a Holocaust denier.
Yet Benedict’s attempt to reach out across the divide came to nothing, much to his regret.
BOOKISH and quiet, Benedict was not always aware of the consequences of his words. Early in his papacy, during a lecture in Germany on Islam, he quoted a 14th-century document which said: “Show me just what Mohammad brought that was new and there you will find things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
It triggered outrage and heightened security during Benedict’s visit to Turkey, where he sought, largely successfully, to repair relations with the Islamic world.
If he had an overarching aim for his years as the successor to St Peter, it was to promote two key ideas: one was the transformative nature of putting one’s faith and life in the hands of Jesus Christ, and the other was that modern man was enslaved by what he described as “a dictatorship of relativism”.
The idea that there were no universal truths and that man was free to make his own morals was “a prison for each of us, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own ego”.
He was anxious to reverse what he saw as the moral decline of Europe, whose population had largely abandoned the Church, with attendances plummeting in almost every nation.
He wrote three major encyclicals, letters to the faithful, in which he addressed the issue of love, hope and, in 2009, charity, in which he tackled the current economic system “where the pernicious effects of sin are prevalent”.
Last year, he also finished the final volume of a trilogy of books of Jesus Christ. As the Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, said: “His contribution to the Universal Church was to turn us all towards the person of Jesus Christ in every circumstance. He did this in his homilies and addresses in the most insightful and thoughtful and creative of ways.”
BISHOP Tartaglia added: “He is, I believe, a latter-day Father of the Church in the footsteps of great saints like Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, and his writings will nourish hearts and minds for decades to come.”
Catherine Pepinster, the editor of The Tablet, said: “He will be remembered for his intellect. He was a Pope of the mind. His encyclicals were beautifully written.
“He wrote movingly on love and a fine encyclical on economics and the state of the world which surprised many people.
“When he was in Britain, people were surprised that he was much warmer and more charming than they expected, and his speech in Westminster Hall, when he addressed parliament on the interplay between faith and reason, will be remembered for many years to come.”
For those dismayed by the Catholic Church in Scotland’s views on gay marriage, it was an opinion that came straight from the top. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the successor to the Inquisition, Benedict, or Cardinal Ratzinger as he then was, described homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil” and, as Pope, he lamented the dissolution of marriage and the elevation of what he described as “pseudo-matrimonies by people of the same sex”.
Yet the papacy of Benedict XVI will be remembered by many for the scandal of clerical child abuse. Defenders of the Pope argue that, as head of the CDF, he did what he could but was blocked by Pope John Paul II and the Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, who wished to save the Church from embarrassment.
HOWEVER, as Pope, he sought to rid the Church of what he described as “filth”, insisted bishops report cases to the police and made changes to speed up the defrocking of abusive priests. He also repeatedly met survivors of abuse by priests and wrote a letter to the Catholic population of Ireland to atone for the shameful behaviour of the hierarchy who, for decades, had sought to suppress abuse.
For many, however, it was too little too late. In the last few years, there was also a sense of papal drift, that Benedict XVI’s grip on the Vatican had loosened considerably.
When Paolo Gabriele was found guilty of leaking papers from the Pope’s desk to the press and sentenced to 18 months, the butler insisted he was trying to protect the Pope from the “wolves” circling the Holy See.
The Pope’s attempt to connect with the world through Twitter was half-hearted. Since December he posted only 24 tweets, the last on Sunday read: “We must trust in the mighty power of God’s mercy. We are all sinners but His grace transforms us and makes us new.”
Pope Benedict XVI is a fan of classical music and an accomplished pianist, but it now remains to be seen how his unique retirement plays out.