Following the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on New Year’s Eve, we take the opportunity to look back and find inspiration in a remarkable life, lived in the service of God, truth and the Church he loved to the end.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was born Joseph Ratzinger on 16 April 1927 (Holy Saturday) at Marktl am Inn in Bavaria, Germany, and was baptised on the same day.
The son of a police commissioner from Lower Bavaria and a former hotel cook from Rimsting, Joseph was raised in Traunstein, a small village near the Austrian border—an environment the keen pianist and music lover would later describe as ‘Mozartian’.
In his younger years, he witnessed the hostility of the Nazi regime to the Catholic Church first-hand when he saw Nazis beating the local parish priest before the celebration of Mass, and when his father was demoted for his opposition to National Socialism. But his upbringing and formation in a devout Catholic home prepared and strengthened him for these difficult years. Indeed, it was during this time—and through his family’s steadfast witness to the goodness and truth of the Gospel—that he came to faith in Christ, and friendship with Jesus Christ would become a frequent theme in his preaching in the years to come.
Going on to study theology, Joseph was ordained a priest in 1951, along with his brother Georg. Completing his doctorate in theology in 1953, he qualified for university teaching in 1957. In a distinguished academic career, he taught at Bonn, Münster, Tübingen and Regensburg, where he occupied the Chair of Dogmatics and History of Dogma, and also served as Vice-President of the University.
He attended the Second Vatican Council as the peritus (theological consultant) of Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, and his death marks the passing of the last pope to have participated in the Council. The young theologian made significant contributions, arguing that the Council’s texts ‘should respond to the most pressing questions … not judging or condemning, but using maternal language.’ As Andrea Tornielli has observed, though, ‘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.’
During his academic career, Ratzinger held important positions at the service of the German Bishops’ Conference and the International Theological Commission, and in 1972, he was instrumental in the founding the theological journal Communio along with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and others.
Pope Paul VI appointed Joseph Ratzinger Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. Choosing ‘Cooperators of the truth’ as his episcopal motto, he explained that he saw it ‘as the relation between my previous task as professor and my new mission … following the truth and being at its service … in today’s world the theme of truth is omitted almost entirely, as something too great for man, and yet everything collapses if truth is missing.’
Only a few weeks later, he was made a Cardinal, and the following year he took part in the Conclave of 25 and 26 August, which elected John Paul I. In October 1978—shortly after returning from the Third International Mariological Congress in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he served as Pope John Paul I’s Special Envoy—Cardinal Ratzinger would take part in the Conclave that elected Pope John Paul II.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II entrusted him with the leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the beginning of a strong and enduring partnership between the two men.
Perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger’s most significant contribution during these years was to the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, a project that took six years to complete, being published in 1992.
In 1993, Pope John Paul II elevated Cardinal Ratzinger to the Order of Bishops; in 1998, he was elected Vice-Dean of the College of Cardinals, and in 2002 he was elected Dean. Over the years, he served in many important posts in the Roman Curia, including with the Council of the Secretariat of State for Relations with States; the Congregations for the Oriental Churches, Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Bishops, the Evangelization of Peoples, Catholic Education, Clergy and the Causes of the Saints; the Pontifical Councils for Promoting Christian Unity and Culture; the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, and of the Pontifical Commissions for Latin America, ‘Ecclesia Dei’, the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law, and the Revision of the Code of Canons of Oriental Churches. In 2000, he was made an Honorary Academic of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Regarded by many as one of the most significant theologians of his era, he published 66 books over the course of his career, often illuminating Catholic doctrine and values, and providing valuable entry points for those wishing to enter more deeply into the study of theology. Among his most influential works are Introduction to Christianity (1968); Dogma and Preaching (1973); Salt of the Earth (1996); and the three-volume series Jesus of Nazareth (2007, 2011, 2012). The Ratzinger Report (1985), a collection of interviews he gave to Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, outlined his views on the state of the Catholic Church in the years after Vatican II.
On 19 April 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected the 265th Pope. Addressing the crowd in St Peter’s Square from the balcony, he described himself as ‘a simple, humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord’. He was the first German Pope in 1000 years and the oldest person to be elected to the papacy since 1730. He came to the role with extensive experience, having been a cardinal for a longer period than any pope since 1724.
With a focus on bringing ‘God back to the centre’ in a world where, he said, ‘the faith is in danger of dying out’, the reign of Pope Benedict XVI lasted almost eight years. While much shorter than that of his predecessor, it was nevertheless a significant and eventful pontificate, including 24 apostolic visits abroad, three World Youth Days (including in Sydney in 2008) and a World Meeting of Families; three encyclicals, an apostolicconstitution and three apostolic exhortations; four synods (two ordinary and two extraordinary); the creation of84 cardinals; and the proclamation of 45 saints and 855 blessed (including his predecessor, Pope John Paul II).
‘Faith presupposes reason and perfects it,’ he wrote, and the relationship between faith and reason was a recurring theme during his papacy, as was the role of beauty and the arts in the life of the Church.
Carrying on the legacy of his predecessors—from John XXIII to John Paul II—and in line with the central themes of his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI recognised the importance of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, although this was sometimes an underappreciated aspect of his leadership. During his pontificate, this dialogue was marked at times by difficulties and misunderstandings, but Benedict persevered in reaching out to those of different religions, faiths and cultures.
Pope Benedict’s reign coincided with a particularly challenging period for the Church, marked by the clerical sex abuse crisis and the ‘Vatileaks’ scandal. From the outset, he tackled these crises with resolve and a clear head, laying the foundations for later reforms under Pope Francis.
As Pope, Benedict was unrelenting in his struggle against paedophilia within the Church, enacting regulations to improve law enforcement and the prevention of sexual abuse, resulting in a significant increase in the number of priests suspended for their involvement in cases of sex abuse and in the number of bishops disciplined for their mismanagement of the crisis.
Early in his reign, responding to financial scandals in the Holy See, Benedict XVI also initiated reforms to improve transparency in the management of the Vatican’s finances.
Benedict’s papacy came to an end on 28 February 2013 with the surprise announcement that he was stepping down, the first Pope to do so in almost 600 years.
Announcing his decision to resign in Latin, Benedict explained that having examined his conscience, he had concluded that ‘my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.’
Later, reflecting on this decision, Pope Francis would say,
He is a man of God, a humble man, a man of prayer. I was so happy when he was elected Pope. Also, when he resigned, for me it was an example of greatness. A great man. Only a great man does this!
From the time of his resignation, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI continued to live within the Vatican walls atthe Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, writing theology and upholding God’s people in prayer. He was in poor health for many years, and as his condition worsened in late December 2022, Pope Francis called for continued prayers ‘to accompany him in these difficult hours’.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died on New Year’s Eve 2022. His funeral Mass will take place in St Peter’s Square on 5 January 2023, with Pope Francis presiding.
Main image: Pope Benedict XVI in St Peter's Square, Rome, 2007 (photo by Marek Kośniowski, via Wikimedia Commons).