Pope Benedict XVI was on the Chair of St. Peter from 2005 until his resignation in 2013. As the first pope to resign in six centuries, this pontiff – born Joseph Ratzinger – took the title “pope emeritus” upon retirement, opening up a new avenue for future popes to consider. Like many things he did, the true depth of meaning behind the act of this paragon of twentieth century Catholic theology gives us a deeper understanding of service to the God of Jesus Christ.
A few centuries from now, historians will look back on the man who was Benedict XVI with intellectual reverence and intrigue. They may wonder why he was not as beloved in his time as pope in the way his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II was. We might begin to look for the answer in the bombed-out ruins of Munich following the Second World War.
Joseph Ratzinger was born in the ill-fated Weimar Republic in 1927. Ratzinger was brought up in the midst of the darkness and tumult of his native Germany’s suffering under the Nazi Regime. Although Catholic, the Nazi death chambers did not spare his family: Ratzinger’s young cousin with down syndrome was murdered in 1941.
Drafted into the Nazi Youth at 14, the teenage Ratzinger resisted participating — setting his heart on returning to the seminary instead. When forced into military service he defected and returned home as the War came to its conclusion. After the War, Ratzinger completed seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in 1951. His academic performance led to his becoming a professor by the end of that decade. He taught in multiple German universities as the years went on. During his years in academia, he worked with other theological luminaries of his time, including Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, and Edward Schillebeeckx. He was inspired by an intellectual elder in Romano Guardini. Ratzinger and many of these contemporaries had a big impact on the reforming Second Vatican Council — the inflection point of Catholicism in the twentieth century.
In 1977, Pope Paul VI surprised Ratzinger by appointing him Archbishop of Munich and Freising. He was made cardinal shortly thereafter. But the course of his life was changed again four years later, when he was tapped by another pope who respected his vast theological prowess. In 1981, Pope John Paul II elevated Ratzinger to the most powerful post in the Roman Curia at that time: Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Over the following decades Ratzinger became a fixture of doctrinal discussions within the Vatican. During the long papacy of his predecessor, Ratzinger eventually became an elder prelate to the younger generations coming up after him. He was not popular with everyone. His theological pronouncements did make enemies and he attained the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.”
When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, Ratzinger quickly became a favorite to be picked in the ensuing Conclave. He was one of only two men present at the previous conclave in 1978 still eligible to participate in 2005. His status as the elder prelate led to his becoming the natural successor to the beloved polish pope. Having taken the name Benedict XVI, Ratzinger cited as inspiration the previous pope of that name, Benedict XV, who was an advocate for peace during the First World war. He also noted the myriad scholar-popes who also chose the name Benedict.
Unfortunately, Benedict XVI’s papacy was overshadowed by ever-present scandals, ranging from the Sex Abuse Crisis to financial crises to betrayal by his own butler. Still, Benedict’s strengths in theology and liturgy remained undiminished. He put them to good use in his teachings on consumerism, relativism, and the interplay of faith and reason. Whereas his predecessor failed to act decisively or meaningfully in response to the Church’s sex abuse crisis, Benedict took firm action. He defrocked many abuser priests and he established new canonical protocols to handle cases of clerical abuse. Benedict’s papacy truly represents the Vatican’s response to the sexual abuse crisis, although many of his missteps would come back to haunt him.
After nearly eight years, however, Benedict contemplated the need for his resignation so that the needed reforms in the Church could be carried out. His startling resignation in 2013 cleared the way for future popes to acknowledge when they are no longer up to the job. Benedict’s recognition that the modern world requires that the pope must have the health and strength to govern the Church and to travel will undoubtedly prove critical to future Bishops of Rome. When Pope Francis was elevated to St. Peter’s throne, he remarked at the warmth and generous spirit of his predecessor — someone that many, even himself, often looked upon primarily as the Vatican’s chief disciplinarian.
With the former Pope’s death, the world has lost an icon of twentieth-century Catholic theology. In his resignation, we see his humility. We see the echoes of his interrupted early seminary life in Traunstein, which was closed during the Second World War. We see the echoes of his return to his studies and his ordination in Postwar Germany. His life is a testament to the Gospel that is eternal while the world around it suffers and changes, demanding new approaches.
By the time Benedict reached the apex of his career at the dawn of the millennium, his theological mastery was most effective in healing what was already past. The postmodern world presented new challenges that had never been among the primary concerns of twentieth-century theologians — of which he was the prince. Whereas rationalistic optimism was a well-suited response to the philosophical clarity in the modernity, the post-Cold War period rapidly brought about a post-modern context where the only true response to nihilistic pessimism is mercy and accompaniment. Some might argue that Ratzinger’s great works, Introduction to Christianity (1968) and Jesus of Nazareth, speak to theological concerns of an era now largely passed by. Nonetheless, his treasure of writings will be poured over for centuries to come, serving as a priceless syllabus on Christian belief.
Great theologians have senses of humor too. In a 2021 interview the, then-emeritus pope quipped, “I’m surprised I’m still alive too,” in response to a question about his 2013 resignation. He had not foreseen that despite his ailing health at the time of his resignation, he would go on to live nearly another decade. His post-papacy provides significant food for thought on how future Popes will conduct themselves after they retire. For example, he only left Vatican City once in those years: to visit his ailing brother on his death bed.
The former Pope was 95 at his passing on December 31, 2022. Yesterday, his successor, Pope Francis, presided over his funeral Mass. He was laid to rest in the crypt formerly occupied by his predecessor, John Paul II, before his body was moved upstairs to the main Church following his 2011 beatification.
Benedict’s last days saw an outpouring of prayer after his successor broke the news of his rapidly declining health. Now we pray that he may intercede for us in our own journeys.
May he rest in peace.
 In June 2022, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was renamed the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF).
Image: Benedict kneels at the Celebration of Catholic Education in England, 2010. © Mazur /www.thepapalvisit.org.uk. License: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)