Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the shy German theologian who tried to reawaken Christianity in a secularized Europe but will be remembered as the first pontiff to resign in 600 years, died Saturday. He was 95.
On February 11, 2013, Benedict stunned the world when he announced, in his usual soft-spoken Latin, that he no longer had the strength to lead the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church that he had led for eight years through scandal and indifference.
His dramatic decision paved the way for the conclave that chose Pope Francis to succeed him. The two popes then shared a residence in the Vatican gardens, an unprecedented arrangement that paved the way for future “popes emeritus” to do the same.
On Saturday morning, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni issued the following statement: “I regret to inform you that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died today at 9:34 a.m. in the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesia Monastery. More information will be made available as soon as possible.”
The Vatican announced that Benedict’s ashes would be on display in St. Peter’s Basilica beginning Monday for the faithful to pay their final respects.
Former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had never wanted to be Pope, preferring to spend his final years writing in the “peace and quiet” of his native Bavaria at the age of 78.
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 his personal papers and gave them to a journalist.
He once said that being elected Pope felt like a “guillotine” had been thrust upon him.
Nonetheless, he went into the job with a single-minded goal in mind: to rekindle faith in a world that, he frequently lamented, seemed to believe it could live without God.
“In vast areas of the world today, there is a strange forgetfulness of God,” he told 1 million young people gathered on a vast field for his first foreign trip as pope, to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. “It seems as if everything would be just the same even without him.”
He attempted to remind Europe of its Christian heritage through some decisive, often contentious moves. And he led the Catholic Church down a conservative, tradition-bound path that frequently alienated progressives. He eased restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass and cracked down on American nuns, insisting that the church remain true to its doctrine and traditions in the face of a changing world. It was a path that his successor, Francis, reversed in many ways, with his mercy-over-morals priorities alienating the traditionalists who had been so indulged by Benedict.
Benedict’s demeanor was diametrically opposed to that of John Paul II or Pope Francis. Benedict was no media darling or populist; he was a teacher, theologian, and academic at heart: quiet and pensive with a fierce mind. He spoke in paragraphs rather than soundbites. 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. He had a weakness for orange Fanta as well as his beloved library. The books accompanied him to his retirement residence.
“In them are all my advisers,” he said of his books in the book-length interview “Light of the World.” published in 2010. “I know every nook and cranny, and everything has its history.”
Benedict’s devotion to history and tradition endeared him to members of the Catholic Church’s traditionalist wing. Even in retirement, Benedict remained a beacon of nostalgia for the orthodoxy and Latin Mass of their youth – and the pope they preferred over Francis.
This group of arch-conservatives, whose complaints were amplified by sympathetic U.S.-based conservative Catholic media, would eventually become a key source of opposition to Francis, who responded to what he said were threats of division by reinstating the restrictions on the old Latin Mass that Benedict had relaxed.
Benedict, like his predecessor John Paul, made reaching out to Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as Pope was to write a letter to Rome’s Jewish community, and he became only the second pope in history, after John Paul II, to visit a synagogue.
Benedict made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for Christ’s death in his 2011 book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” 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.
“It’s very clear Benedict is a true friend of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the American Jewish Committee’s interreligious relations office, at the time of Benedict’s retirement.
However, Benedict offended some Jews who were enraged by his constant defense and promotion of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope accused by some of failing to sufficiently condemn the Holocaust. They also chastised Benedict for lifting the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who denied the Holocaust.
Benedict’s relationships with the Muslim world were also tumultuous. He infuriated 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 described some of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman,” particularly his command to spread the faith “by the sword.”
Following the massacre of Christians in Egypt, the Al Azhar center in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Muslim learning, severed ties with the Vatican, which were only reestablished under Francis.
The Vatican suffered infamous public relations blunders under Benedict, and Benedict was sometimes to blame. He enraged the United Nations and several European governments in 2009 when, en route to Africa, he told reporters that distributing condoms would not solve the AIDS crisis.
“On the contrary, it increases the problem,” Benedict explained. A year later, he issued a revision in which he stated that if a male prostitute uses a condom to avoid transmitting HIV to his partner, he may be taking the first step toward more responsible sexuality.
However, Benedict’s legacy was irreversibly tainted by the global eruption of the sex abuse scandal in 2010, despite the fact that as a cardinal, he was responsible for turning the Vatican around on the issue.
Documents revealed that the Vatican was well aware of the problem but chose to ignore it for decades, even rebuffing bishops who tried to do the right thing.
Because his former office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he had led since 1982, was in charge of dealing with abuse cases, Benedict had firsthand knowledge of the scope of the problem.
In fact, before becoming Pope, he made the then-revolutionary decision in 2001 to take over responsibility for processing those cases after realizing bishops around the world were not punishing abusers but simply moving them from parish to parish where they could rape again.
And, once elected, Benedict essentially reversed the actions of his beloved predecessor, John Paul II, by prosecuting the twentieth century’s most notorious pedophile priest, Rev. Marcial Maciel. After it was revealed that Maciel sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children, Benedict took over Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order held up as a model of orthodoxy by John Paul.
An independent report faulted Benedict in retirement for his treatment of four priests while he was bishop of Munich; he denied any personal wrongdoing but apologized for any “grievous faults.”
As soon as Benedict’s abuse scandal died down, another one erupted.
Paolo Gabriele, Benedict’s former butler, was convicted of aggravated theft in October 2012 after Vatican police discovered a large stash of papal documents in his apartment. Gabriele told Vatican investigators that he gave the documents to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi because he believed the pope was unaware of the “evil and corruption” in the Vatican and that exposing it publicly would help the church get back on track.
After the “Vatileaks” scandal was resolved, including a papal pardon for Gabriele, Benedict felt free to make the extraordinary decision that he had hinted at previously: he announced that he would resign rather than die in office, as all of his predecessors had done for nearly six centuries.
“After repeatedly examining my conscience before God,” he told cardinals, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to advanced age are no longer suited” to the demands of being Pope.
In February 2013, he made his final public appearances before taking a helicopter to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo to watch the conclave in private. Benedict then largely followed through on his promise to live a life of prayer in retirement, only emerging from his converted monastery for special events and writing occasional book prefaces and messages.
They were usually harmless, but 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.
Despite their very different personalities and priorities, Francis frequently stated that having Benedict in the Vatican was like having a “wise grandfather” living in the house.
Benedict was frequently misunderstood: dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” by the media, he was actually a very sweet and fiercely intelligent academic who devoted his life to serving the church he adored.
“Thank you for having given us the luminous example of the simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord,” Benedict’s longtime deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, told him at one of his final public appearances as Pope.
When Benedict was elected the Church’s 265th leader on April 19, 2005, he took on the seemingly impossible task of following in the footsteps of John Paul II. He was elected as the oldest pope in 275 years and the first German in nearly 1,000 years.
Benedict, who was born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl Am Inn, Bavaria, wrote in his memoirs about being enlisted in the Nazi youth movement against his will in 1941, when he was 14 and membership was mandatory. In the waning days of the war, in April 1945, he deserted the German army.
In 1951, Benedict and his brother, Georg, were ordained. After teaching theology in Germany for several years, he was appointed bishop of Munich in 1977 and elevated to cardinal three months later by Pope Paul VI.
Until his death in 2020, his brother Georg was a frequent visitor to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. His sister died many years ago. His “papal family” included Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, his long-time private secretary who was always by his side, another secretary, and consecrated women who looked after the papal apartment.