Benedict XVI, first pope to retire in 600 years, dies at 95

VATICAN. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a shy German theologian who tried to revive Christianity in a secularized Europe but will forever be remembered as the first pontiff to retire in 600 years, died on Saturday. He was 95.

Pope Francis will celebrate his funeral mass in St. Peter’s Square on Thursday, an unprecedented event for the current pope to mark the funeral of a former.

Benedict stunned the world on February 11, 2013, when he announced in his typical soft Latin that he no longer had the strength to govern the 1.2 billion Catholic Church he had ruled for eight years through scandal and indifference.

His dramatic decision set the stage for a conclave that chose Francis as their successor. The two popes then lived side by side in the gardens of the Vatican, an unprecedented arrangement that set the stage for future “popes emeritus” to do the same.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement on Saturday morning: “I regret to inform you that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed away today at 9:34 a.m. at the monastery of Mater Ecclesia in the Vatican. Additional information will be posted as soon as possible.”

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The Vatican has said that Benedict’s remains will be put on public display in St. Peter’s Basilica starting Monday so that the faithful can pay their last respects. Benedict’s request was for his funeral to be celebrated solemnly but with “simplicity”, Bruni told reporters.

He added that Benedict, whose health had deteriorated by Christmas, received the sacrament of chrismation of the sick on Wednesday, after the daily Mass, in the presence of his long-time secretary and the dedicated women who care for his house.

Former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger never wanted to be a pope, planning to spend his last years of writing at the age of 78 in the “peace and quiet” of his native Bavaria.

Instead, he was forced to follow in the footsteps of his beloved St. John Paul II and lead the church after a clerical sexual harassment scandal and then a second scandal that erupted when his own butler stole his personal papers and handed them over to a journalist.

When he was elected pope, he once said that the “guillotine” fell upon him.

However, he set to work with a single-minded vision of restoring faith in a world that, as he often lamented, seemed to think it could do without God.

“There is a strange forgetfulness of God today across vast areas of the world,” he told 1 million young people gathered in a vast field for his first overseas trip as a dad for World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. It seems that everything would be the same without him.”

In some decisive, often controversial steps, he tried to remind Europe of its Christian heritage. And he set the Catholic Church down a conservative, tradition-oriented path that often repelled progressives. He loosened restrictions on the old Latin Mass and launched a crackdown on American nuns, insisting that the church stay true to its doctrine and traditions in the face of a changing world. It was a path that was in many respects reversed by his successor Francis, whose priority of mercy over morality alienated the traditionalists so indulged in by Benedict.

Benedict’s style was very different from that of John Paul or Francis. Benedict was not a media darling or a populist, Benedict was a teacher, theologian and academic to the core: quiet and thoughtful, with a frantic mind. He spoke in paragraphs, not snippets. He had a soft spot for the orange Fanta, as well as for his favorite library; when he was elected pope, his entire office was moved – as it is – from his apartment just outside the walls of the Vatican to the Apostolic Palace. The books followed him to the nursing home.

“They are all my advisors,” he said of his books in a 2010 interview with The Light of the World. “I know every nook and cranny, and everything has its own story.”

It was Benedict’s devotion to history and tradition that won him the love of members of the traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church. For them, even in retirement, Benedict remained a beacon of nostalgia for the orthodoxy and the Latin Mass of their youth—and for the pope they preferred to Francis.

In time, this group of arch-conservatives, whose grievances were reinforced by the sympathetic conservative Catholic US media, would become a key source of opposition to Francis, who responded to what he called the threat of division by re-imposing restrictions on Old Latin. The mass unleashed by Benedict.

Like his predecessor John Paul, Benedict made addressing the Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as pope was a letter to the Jewish community of Rome, and he became the second pope in history after John Paul to enter a synagogue.

In his 2011 book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict emphatically justified the Jewish people for the death of Christ, explaining from a biblical and theological perspective why there is no basis in Scripture for the claim that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for the death of Christ. death of Jesus.

“It’s clear that Benedict is a true friend of the Jewish people,” Rabbi David Rosen, head of the American Jewish Committee’s interfaith affairs department, said at the time of Benedict’s retirement.

However, Benedict also insulted some Jews, who were outraged by his constant defense and promotion to the sainthood of Pope Pius XII, a World War II pope who was accused by some of failing to sufficiently condemn the Holocaust. And they lambasted Benedict when he rescinded the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who denied the Holocaust.

Benedict’s relationship with the Muslim world was also ambiguous. He angered 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”, especially his orders. spread the faith “by the sword”.

A follow-up comment after the massacre of Christians in Egypt resulted in the Al-Azhar center in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Muslim formation, suspending ties with the Vatican that had only been restored under Francis.

The Vatican under Benedict suffered some notorious publicity blunders, and sometimes Benedict himself was to blame. In 2009, he infuriated the United Nations and several European governments when he told reporters en route to Africa that AIDS could not be solved by handing out condoms.

“On the contrary, it exacerbates the problem,” Benedict said. A year later, he released a revised version saying that if a male prostitute used a condom to avoid transmitting HIV to his partner, he could take the first step towards more responsible sexuality.

But Benedict’s legacy was irrevocably colored by the 2010 global sex abuse scandal, even though as a cardinal he was responsible for changing the Vatican on this issue.

The documents showed that the Vatican was very aware of the problem, but turned a blind eye for decades, at times pushing away bishops who tried to do the right thing.

Benedict knew the extent of the problem firsthand, as his former office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he had chaired since 1982, was responsible for handling cases of abuse.

In fact, it was he who, before becoming pope, made the revolutionary decision in 2001 to take charge of these cases after realizing that bishops around the world do not punish offenders, but simply transfer them from parish to parish where they are. may be raped again.

And once he became pope, Benedict essentially reversed his beloved predecessor, John Paul, by taking action against the most infamous pedophile priest of the 20th century, the Reverend Martial Maciel. Benedict assumed leadership of Maciel’s Legionnaires of Christ, a conservative religious order that John Paul considered a paragon of orthodoxy, after Maciel was found to have sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.

In retirement, Benedict was accused by an independent report of having treated four priests while he was Bishop of Munich; he denied any personal wrongdoing but apologized for any “gross mistakes”.

As soon as the Benedict violence scandal subsided, another erupted.

In October 2012, Benedict’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted of aggravated theft after Vatican police found a huge amount of papal documents in his apartment. Gabriele told Vatican investigators that he gave the documents to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi because he believed that the Pope was not informed about “evil and corruption” in the Vatican and that public exposure of this would put the church on the right track.

Once the Vatilex scandal was resolved, including the papal pardon for Gabriele, Benedict felt free to take the extraordinary decision he had hinted at earlier: he announced that he would rather resign than die in office, as had been done all his predecessors. almost six centuries.

“Having repeatedly tested my conscience before God, I have come to the conclusion that my powers of advanced age are no longer fit” to the demands of being a pope, he told the cardinals.

He last appeared in public in February 2013, and then boarded a helicopter and went to the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo to sit out the conclave alone. Benedict then largely kept his word that he would live a life of prayer in retirement, only occasionally leaving his converted monastery for special occasions and occasionally writing book prefaces and epistles.

They were usually harmless, but one 2020 book in which Benedict defended a celibate priesthood at a time when Francis was considering exclusion prompted demands for future “popes honorary” to remain silent.

Despite his very different style and priorities, Francis often said that Benedict’s presence in the Vatican was like a “wise grandfather” living at home.

Benedict was often misunderstood: dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” by the unsympathetic media, he was in fact a very sweet and extremely intelligent scientist who dedicated his life to serving the church he loved.

“Thank you for giving us a brilliant example of a simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard,” Benedict’s longtime deputy Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone told him at one of his last public events as pope.

Benedict inherited the seemingly impossible task of following in the footsteps of John Paul when he was elected the 265th leader of the Church on April 19, 2005. He was the oldest pope elected in 275 years and the first German in almost 1,000 years.

Born on April 16, 1927 in Marktl am Inn in Bavaria, Benedict wrote in his memoirs that in 1941, when he was 14 years old and membership was mandatory, he was enrolled in the Nazi youth movement against his will. He deserted from the German army in April 1945, during the last days of the war.

Benedict was ordained along with his brother George in 1951. After spending several years teaching theology in Germany, he was appointed Bishop of Munich in 1977 and raised to the cardinal position by Pope Paul VI three months later.

His brother George was a frequent visitor to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo until he died in 2020. His sister died many years ago. His “papal family” consisted of Monsignor Georg Gänswein, his longtime private secretary who was always by his side, another secretary, and dedicated women who looked after the papal apartments.

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