Oibituary: Pope Benedict XVI, traditionalist pontiff who will be remembered for historic resignation

Born: 16 April, 1927 in Marktl, Germany. Died: Died: 31 December, 2022 in Monastero Mater Ecclesiæ, Vatican City, aged 95

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the German theologian who will be remembered as the first Pope in 600 years to resign, has died at the age of 95.

The shy German theologian stunned the world on February 11, 2013 when he announced that he no longer had the strength to run the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church that he had steered for eight years through scandal and indifference.

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His dramatic decision paved the way for the conclave that elected Pope Francis as his successor.

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had never wanted to be PopeThe former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had never wanted to be Pope
The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had never wanted to be Pope

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.

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had never wanted to be Pope, planning at age 78 to spend his final years writing in the “peace and quiet” of his native Bavaria.

Instead, he was forced to follow the footsteps of the beloved St John Paul II and run the church through the fallout of the clerical sex abuse scandal and then a second scandal that erupted when his own butler stole his personal papers and gave them to a journalist.

Being elected pope, he once said, felt like a “guillotine” had come down on him.

Nevertheless, he set about the job with a single-minded vision to rekindle the faith in a world that, he frequently lamented, seemed to think it could do without God.

With some decisive, often controversial moves, he tried to remind Europe of its Christian heritage. And he set the Catholic Church on a conservative, tradition-minded path that often alienated progressives.

He relaxed the restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass and launched a crackdown on American nuns, insisting that the church stay true to its doctrine and traditions in the face of a changing world. It was a path that in many ways was reversed by his successor, Francis, whose mercy-over-morals priorities alienated the traditionalists who had been so indulged by Benedict.

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Benedict’s style could not have been more different from that of John Paul or Francis. Once nicknamed "God's Rottweiler" by the media, he was no globe-trotting media darling or populist. Benedict was a teacher, theologian and academic to the core: quiet and pensive with a fierce mind. He spoke in paragraphs, not soundbites. He had a weakness for orange Fanta as well as his beloved library; when he was elected pope, he had his entire study moved – as is – from his apartment just outside the Vatican walls into the Apostolic Palace. The books followed him to his retirement home.

Like his predecessor John Paul, Benedict made reaching out to Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as Pope was a letter to Rome’s Jewish community and he became the second Pope in history, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue.

In his 2011 book, Jesus Of Nazareth, Benedict made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Christ, explaining biblically and theologically why there was no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death.

Yet Benedict also offended some Jews who were incensed at his constant defence of and promotion toward sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the Second World War-era Pope accused by some of having failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust. And they harshly criticised Benedict when he removed the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the Holocaust.

Benedict’s relations with the Muslim world were also a mixed bag. He riled Muslims with a speech in September 2006 – five years after the September 11 attacks in the United States – in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterised some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman”, particularly his command to spread the faith “by the sword”.

A subsequent comment after the massacre of Christians in Egypt led the Al Azhar centre in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Muslim learning, to suspend ties with the Vatican, which were only restored under Francis.

But Benedict’s legacy was irreversibly coloured by the global eruption in 2010 of the sex abuse scandal, even though as a cardinal he was responsible for turning the Vatican around on the issue.

Documents revealed that the Vatican knew very well of the problem yet turned a blind eye for decades, at times rebuffing bishops who tried to do the right thing.

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Benedict had first-hand knowledge of the scope of the problem, since his old office – the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he had headed since 1982 – was responsible for dealing with abuse cases.

In fact, it was he who, before becoming Pope, took the then-revolutionary decision in 2001 to assume responsibility for processing those cases after he realised bishops around the world were not punishing abusers but were just moving them from parish to parish.

In retirement, Benedict was faulted by an independent report for his handling of four priests while he was bishop of Munich; he denied any personal wrongdoing but apologised for any “grievous faults”.

As soon as the abuse scandal calmed down for Benedict, another one erupted.

In October 2012, Benedict’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted of aggravated theft after Vatican police found a huge stash 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 of the “evil and corruption” in the Vatican and that exposing it publicly would put the church on the right track.

Once the “Vatileaks” scandal was resolved, including with a papal pardon of Gabriele, Benedict felt free to take the extraordinary decision that he had hinted at previously: He announced that he would resign rather than die in office as all his predecessors had done for almost six centuries.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited” to the demands of being the Pope, he told cardinals.

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He made his last public appearances in February 2013 and then boarded a helicopter to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, to sit out the conclave in private. Benedict then largely kept to his word that he would live a life of prayer in retirement, emerging only occasionally from his converted monastery for special events and writing occasional book prefaces and messages.

Usually they were innocuous, but one 2020 book — in which Benedict defended the celibate priesthood at a time when Francis was considering an exception — sparked demands for future “popes emeritus” to keep quiet.

Despite his very different style and priorities, Francis frequently said that having Benedict in the Vatican was like having a “wise grandfather” living at home.

Benedict inherited the seemingly impossible task of following in the footsteps of John Paul when he was elected the 265th leader of the Church on April 19 2005. He was the oldest pope elected in 275 years and the first German in nearly 1,000 years.

Born April 16 1927, in Marktl Am Inn, in Bavaria, Benedict wrote in his memoirs of being enlisted in the Nazi youth movement against his will in 1941, when he was 14 and membership was compulsory. He deserted the German army in April 1945, the waning days of the war.

Benedict was ordained, along with his brother, Georg, in 1951. After spending several years teaching theology in Germany, he was appointed bishop of Munich in 1977 and elevated to cardinal three months later by Pope Paul VI.

His brother Georg was a frequent visitor to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo until he died in 2020. His sister died years previously.

His “papal family” consisted of Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, his long-time private secretary who was always by his side, another secretary and consecrated women who tended to the papal apartment.


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