VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI, the former head of the Catholic Church whose historic resignation in 2013 created the position of “pope emeritus,” has died following a short illness. He was 95 years old.
The Vatican confirmed his death Saturday local time. His body will lie in state at St. Peter’s Basilica beginning January 2, the Vatican said. According to Benedict XVI’s secretary, Archbishop George Ganswein, his last words were, “Jesus, I love you.”
A distinguished theologian and prolific writer, the late pontiff began his reign in 2005, following the death of Pope John Paul II. But his papacy ended abruptly in 2013 when he resigned due to health concerns in his advancing age. He was the first pope to step down in 600 years.
Benedict’s legacy, consistent with his traditionally orthodox views, includes reaffirming the Church’s stance against heterodoxy, abortion, contraception, and women’s ordination. He imposed restrictions on homosexuals becoming priests, despite heavy resistance from activists within the Church. Of note, Benedict’s legacy included his declaration (or Motu Proprio) Summorum Pontificum allowing the Traditional Latin Mass to be celebrated freely without the need of permission from Bishops — something that has all but been reversed by Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis.
Benedict also found himself handling one of the Church’s biggest crises in decades as allegations of clerical child sex abuse piled up. The pope demanded responsibility for “sin within the Church,” and, even as Cardinal, highlighted the “weakness of human beings” and a “weakness of faith” as the root cause of the scandals. Detractors, though, say the pope effectively helped to keep the “scandals under wraps.” Allegations of cover-up, however, continue to plague the Church.
The youngest of three children, Joseph Ratzinger was born in Bavaria, Germany, on April 16, 1927, to a father who was a police officer and a mother who was a cook. He quickly knew he wanted to become a priest — following in the footsteps of his older brother, Georg — though his upbringing was interrupted by the rise of the Nazi Party, which took power when he was just six years old.
His parents, staunch Catholics, were opposed to Nazism — and personally affected by it. Biographer John Allen said that Cardinal Ratzinger disclosed in 1996 that the family had a 14-year-old cousin with Down syndrome who was taken away by Nazis in 1941 for “therapy.” The family soon after learned the boy was dead, likely exterminated for his disability.
As a young man, Joseph Ratzinger and his brother, Georg, were compelled to join the Hitler Youth and, in 1943, Joseph was drafted into the German military. Toward the end of the war, the future pope deserted his post and was captured by U.S. forces. He would return to seminary, along with his brother, upon his release.
Ratzinger’s brother, Georg, once recalled the story of his brother’s return to his family to the British Broadcasting Company, noting that Joseph had devoted his life to the reverence of the liturgy. Once Joseph Ratzinger was released by the Americans, he made a 70-mile trip back to his home. Upon his return, when he found his family was attending Mass, Ratzinger would not go inside the church, fearing he would create “a disturbance.”
“It is not a personal plaything, but a gift from God,” Georg recounted regarding the liturgy. Both Ratzinger brothers were ordained together, in 1951.
After receiving his doctorate of theology, Ratzinger taught as a professor at several universities. During this time, his views were said to have shifted from more liberal to far more conservative, a reaction to the radical “student revolutions.” His conservative views would inform his opposition to Marxism, the “dictatorship of relativism.”
Later in his life, Ratzinger recalled a “traumatic memory” from his time as a university professor, when he witnessed theology students releasing a flyer that said, “The New Testament is a document of inhumanity, a large scale deception of the masses.” The flyer asked, “So what is Jesus’s Cross but the expression of a sado-masochistic glorification of pain?”
“It is true I saw a new spirit creeping in,” Ratzinger said. “A spirit in which fanatical ideologies made use of the spirit of Christianity. … Here I saw very clearly … that there was an abuse of the Church and the faith, which were used as instruments of power.”
Ratzinger, in his service to the church, participated in all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Even at this time, he was considered a liberal voice in support of reforms. In 1977, he was named Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and months later, was elevated to Cardinal of Munich. By 1981, however, Cardinal Ratzinger was considered one of the foremost adherents to orthodoxy and named Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope John Paul II. Eventually, he would also attain leadership in the College of the Cardinals.
A self-described introvert, Cardinal Ratzinger was known to be extremely shy and uncomfortable in large crowds. He was an avid reader, scholar, and pianist, often seen accompanied by his late brother, Georg, or a number of cats he looked after — including a beloved black and white cat named Chico.
Following the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2, 2005, the papal conclave convened to elect the next pope: Cardinal Ratzinger. At age 78, Ratzinger accepted the election, stating, “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”
During this first general audience, the pope explained that he chose to call himself Benedict XVI as a link to Pope Benedict XV, who headed the Catholic Church during the First World War.
“He was a true and courageous prophet of peace who struggled strenuously and bravely, first to avoid the drama of war and then to limit its terrible consequences,” he said. “In his footsteps I place my ministry, in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples, profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is above all a gift of God, a fragile and precious gift to be invoked, safeguarded and constructed, day after day and with everyone’s contribution.”
Early in his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI made it a point to denounce Nazism, the ideology that was dominant through much of his youth, and made an important visit to Israel in 2009. He was eventually lauded by Israeli leaders as a friend who helped promote dialogue and coexistence.
“I greatly appreciate him for his immense activity to interfaith connection that has contributed greatly to the reduction of anti-Semitism in the world,” Yona Metzger, one of Israel’s two chief rabbis, said of him. “I pray that his legacy is preserved and that the trends he led will continue since the relations between the rabbinate and the church during his term were the best ever.”
Under his pontificate, Pope Benedict utilized social media, joining Twitter as he endeavored to follow St. John Paul II’s efforts to advance the Church into the modern era. Notably, Pope Francis assumed the papal Twitter handle after his elevation.
On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict shocked the world when he announced his resignation from the papacy — citing his advanced age and health.
“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth,” the pope said in his final farewell in front of more than 50,000 people packed into St. Peter’s Square. “But I would still … with my heart, with my love, with my prayers, with my reflection, and with all my inner strength, like to work for the common good and the good of the Church and of humanity.”
He formally stepped down on February 28, 2013.
Bree Dail reported from Vatican City. Amanda Prestigiacomo reported from New York.