Not since 1417 has the death of a (former) Pope not brought with it the end of a pontificate.
The death of Benedict xvi , born Joseph Ratzinger, comes nearly ten years after he announced his resignation on 11 February 2013. That announcement came as a surprise to everyone as he read a brief statement in Latin in front of a few astonished cardinals. Never before in the Church’s two-thousand-year history had a Pope resigned because he felt physically inadequate to bear the weight of the papal office.
However, in a response given to journalist Peter Seewald in Light of the World, a book-length interview published three years earlier, he had in some way anticipated it: “If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign”.
Even though the conclusion of his reign was anticipated in respect to the end of his life, creating a historic precedent of enormous magnitude, it would truly be unbecoming to remember Benedict xvi for this alone.
“Teenager” theologian at the Council
Born in 1927 into a simple, very Catholic family in Bavaria and the son of a police commissioner, Joseph Ratzinger was a protagonist of the Church in the last century.
He was ordained a priest together with his brother, Georg, in 1951, earned a doctorate in theology two years later, and in 1957 was licensed to teach as a professor of dogmatic theology. He taught in Freising, Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and lastly in Regensburg.
His death marks the passing of the last Pope personally involved in the work of the Second Vatican Council. As a young man, already esteemed as a theologian, Ratzinger had followed the council sessions as the peritus of Cardinal Frings of Cologne, leaning toward the reformist wing. He was among those who strongly criticized the preparatory drafts prepared by the Roman Curia, which would later be scrapped by the will of the bishops.
According to the young theologian, the texts “should respond to the most pressing questions and should do so, as far as possible, not judging or condemning, but using maternal language”. Ratzinger favoured the foreseen liturgical reform and the reasons for its providential inevitability. He would say that to retrieve the true nature of the liturgy, it was necessary that the “Latin wall be demolished”.
Guardian of the faith under Wojtyła
But the future Benedict xvi was also a direct witness of the post-conciliar crisis, of the controversies in the universities and theological faculties. He witnessed the questioning of essential truths of the faith and unchecked experimentation with the liturgy. Already in 1966, just a year after the Council ended, he would say that he saw a “low-cost Christianity” in the offing.
Just after turning 50, Paul vi appointed him Archbishop of Munich in 1977, and a few weeks later created him a cardinal. John Paul ii then entrusted him with the leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in November 1981. That was the beginning of a strong partnership between the Polish Pope and the Bavarian theologian, destined to end only with the death of Wojtyła.
Not willing to be deprived of his service, John Paul ii refused till the bitter end to accept Ratzinger’s resignation. Those were the years in which the former Holy Office “dotted many i’s and crossed many t’s” in a great many different issues: putting a halt to the Theology of Liberation that employed Marxist analysis, and taking a stand regarding the great ethical problems that were emerging.
The most important work he was involved in was certainly the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, a project that lasted six years and was published in 1992.
‘Humble worker in the vineyard’
After the death of John Paul ii , the conclave held in 2005 elected Ratzinger — already an old man of 78 years — to succeed him in less than 24 hours. Ratzinger was universally esteemed and respected, even by his adversaries.
From the loggia of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Benedict xvi presented himself as “a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord”. Alien to any sort of protagonism, he declared he had no “programmes”, but that he wanted “to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord”.
Auschwitz and Regensburg
Naturally shy, Benedict did not renounce traveling — his pontificate would be itinerant just as his predecessor’s had been. Some of the most touching moments occurred during his visit to Auschwitz in May 2006, when the German Pope said: “In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence — a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?”.
2006 was also the year of the Regensburg affair, when an old phrase regarding Mohammed, which the Pontiff cited without making it his own, right in the university where he had taught, was exploited, sparking protests in the Islamic world. From then on, the Pope multiplied signs of attention toward Muslims.
Benedict xvi undertook difficult journeys, and witnessed fast-paced secularization taking over de-Christianized societies, as well as dissent within the Church. He celebrated his birthday in the White House, together with George W. Bush, and just a few days later, on 20 April 2008, he prayed at Ground Zero, embracing relatives of September 11th victims.
Encyclical about joy
Even if he had often been branded — while Prefect of the former Holy Office — as the panzercardinal, as Pope, Benedict continually spoke of the “joy of being Christian”.
He dedicated his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, to the love of God. “Being Christian”, he wrote, “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person”.
He even found the time to write a book on Jesus of Nazareth, one sole work that would be published in three volumes. Among the many decisions he made, those to be most remembered are: the Motu proprio allowing the use of the pre-conciliar Roman Missal, and the institution of the Ordinariate allowing Anglican communities to return to full communion with Rome.
In January 2009, the Pope decided to revoke the excommunication of four bishops illicitly ordained by Bishop Marcel Lefebvre, among whom was Richard Williamson, who denies the existence of the gas chambers. Controversy then exploded in the Jewish world, leading the Pope to take up pen and paper and, writing to all the world’s bishops, to assume full responsibility.
Response to scandals
The final years of his pontificate were marked by the re-emergence of the sexual abuse scandal and of Vatileaks — the leaking of documents taken from the Pope’s desk and published in a book.
Benedict xvi was determined and unyielding in dealing with the problem of the “filth” in the Church. He introduced severe norms against the sexual abuse of minors, and asked the Curia and bishops to change their mentality. He even went so far as to say that the most serious persecution of the Church does not come from external enemies, but sin committed within it.
Another important reform concerned Vatican finances: it was Pope Benedict who introduced anti-laundering legislation in the Vatican.
‘A Church free of money and power’
Facing the scandals created by ecclesiastical careerism, the elderly German Pope continually made appeals calling to conversion, to penitence and to humility.
During his last journey to Germany, in September 2011, he invited the Church to be less worldly.
“History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly. Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world”.
By Andrea Tornielli