Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, 1927–2022

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the German-born theologian, died on 31 December 2022.  The retired pope, whose pontificate lasted from 2005 to 2013, shocked the world with an announcement of his…

WelCom February 2023

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the German-born theologian, died on 31 December 2022. 

The retired pope, whose pontificate lasted from 2005 to 2013, shocked the world with an announcement of his retirement on 11 February 2013. 

He was 85 at the time and became the first pope to resign in almost 600 years.

In his final words as pope, he said:  ‘I’m simply a pilgrim who is beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on Earth. …Let us go forward with the Lord for the good of the Church and the world.’

Pope Benedict XVI,  Joseph Ratzinger,  1927–2022 Archdiocese of Wellington
Former Pope Benedict XVI presiding over a weekly audience in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photo: Alessandra Benedetti, Getty Images

NZ Catholics remember Pope Benedict XVI 

Emeritus Pope Benedict has been remembered in memorial Masses throughout the Catholic community in New Zealand. Pope Benedict died in Rome on 31 December at the age of 95. 

‘The Emeritus Pope will be remembered as a very good theologian, and for me as a very kind and cultured gentleman who will obviously go down in history as the first Pope to resign in 600 years,’ said Cardinal John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington and President of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference.

‘Many people saw that as a brave and wise decision, as he acknowledged he no longer had the strength to lead the Church. We should also express gratitude for his life of prayer for the Church in his retirement,’ said Cardinal Dew. 

Cardinal John said in his homily at the Mass for Pope Benedict at St Teresa’s Pro Cathedral on 4 January, ‘One of the things Pope Benedict will be remembered for, apart from his courageous step to resign from the papacy, are some of the words he used at his first Mass as Pope. He said: “Each of us is the result of a thought of God, each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him, and to speak with others of our friendship with Him.”

‘Take time this year to reflect on and pray with these words, imagine God thinking of creating you, God willing you into existence, God loving us into existence, then think of these words “each of us is necessary”.’

Born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, Germany, in 1927, Benedict XVI led the world-wide Catholic Church from April 2005 until February 2013, becoming the first Pope to resign in office since Gregory XII in 1415. He was a teacher and theologian, rather than an administrator, who tried to reawaken Christianity in a secularised Europe.

Before being elected to replace Pope John Paul II, the then Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of the Vatican’s most influential departments, from 1981 to 2005.

Pope Benedict’s funeral was held on 5 January and was led by Pope Francis in front of tens of thousands of mourners in St Peter’s Square. Pope Francis preached a homily at the Requiem Mass, rather than giving a eulogy. A large assembly of ecumenical church leaders were present for the historic occasion.

Benedict’s simple cypress wood coffin was interred in a tomb in the crypt beneath St Peter’s Basilica. An estimated 50,000 people were in the square for the funeral, many of them having queued since dawn. Pope Benedict had requested his funeral be ‘simple, solemn and sober’ and the liturgy respected his wishes.

Pope Benedict XVI was a teacher and theologian, rather than an administrator, who tried to reawaken Christianity in a secularised Europe.

Pope Benedict XVI,  Joseph Ratzinger,  1927–2022 Archdiocese of Wellington
Pope Francis (left) described his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI as a noble and kind man who was a ‘gift’ to the world. Pope Francis also described Pope Benedict as ‘a great master of catechesis whose acute and gentle thought was not self-referential, but ecclesial’. Photo: Osservatore Romano

Pope Benedict was widely seen as a brilliant theologian but alienated many Catholics with his staunchly conservative views. His eight years as head of the Church was also marked by crises, from in-fighting within the Vatican to the global scandal of clerical sex abuse and its cover-up. 

When he resigned, Pope Benedict said he no longer had the ‘strength of mind and body’ necessary for the task, retiring to a quiet life in a monastery in the Vatican gardens. His death brought an end to an unprecedented situation of having two ‘men in white’ – he and Francis – living in the tiny city state. The two popes were said to get on well, but Benedict’s later interventions meant he stayed a standard-bearer for conservative Catholics who did not like his successor’s more liberal stance.

Speaking soon after the death of Pope Benedict, Pope Francis spoke of the kindness of his predecessor.

‘We are moved as we recall him as such a noble person, so kind. And we feel such gratitude in our hearts: gratitude to God for having given him to the Church and to the world; gratitude to him for all the good he accomplished, and above all, for his witness of faith and prayer, especially in these last years of his recollected life. Only God knows the value and the power of his intercession, of the sacrifices he offered for the good of the Church,’ Pope Francis concluded.

Pope Francis also described Pope Benedict as ‘a great master of catechesis whose acute and gentle thought was not self-referential, but ecclesial’.

Doctor of the Church? 

Since his death there have been those calling for Pope Benedict to be made a Doctor of the Church. One of them is Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the former president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference.

‘I hope he will soon be declared a Doctor of the Church,’ he said. ‘Like the star of Bethlehem, Benedict XVI will continue to point the way to Jesus to the pastors of our time,’ he said.

‘I place Benedict XVI among the greats, as Doctor of the Church, a Church Father, Austrian Cardinal Christophe Schönborn said. ‘We will remember Joseph Ratzinger in the 20th century as we remember John Henry Newman in the 19th and Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura in the 13th centuries,’ the 77-year-old Dominican said.

Sources: La Croix International, Vatican News

The Pope of paradox – Benedict

Miles Pattenden

Miles Pattenden is a senior research fellow (Medieval and Early Modern Studies) at the Institute for Religion & Critical Inquiry, Australian Catholic University. He was a keynote speaker at the Australasian Catholic Press Association conference in Melbourne last year.

Pope Benedict XVI,  Joseph Ratzinger,  1927–2022 Archdiocese of Wellington
Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the concluding Mass of the World Youth Day with about one million pilgrims at the Marienfeld, southwest of Cologne, Germany, on 21 August 2005. Photo: Martin Meissner/AP

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the first pope in 600 years to resign, died on 31 December 2022. 

Being elected pope, he once said, felt like a ‘guillotine’ had come down on him.

Nevertheless, he set about the job with a single-minded vision to rekindle the faith in a world that, he frequently lamented, seemed to think it could do without God.

‘In vast areas of the world today, there is a strange forgetfulness of God,’ he told one million young people gathered on a vast field for his first foreign trip as pope, to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. ‘It seems as if everything would be just the same even without him.’

With some decisive, often controversial moves, he tried to remind Europe of its Christian heritage. And he set the Catholic Church on a conservative, tradition-minded path that often alienated progressives.

He relaxed the restrictions on celebrating 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 in many ways was reversed by his successor, Francis, whose mercy-over-morals priorities alienated the traditionalists who had been so indulged by Benedict.

Benedict’s style couldn’t have been more different from that of John Paul II or Francis. No globe-trotting media darling or populist, Benedict was a teacher, theologian and academic to the core: quiet and pensive with a fierce mind. He spoke in paragraphs, not soundbites. He had a weakness for orange Fanta as well as his beloved library; when he was elected pope, he had his entire study moved – as is – from his apartment just outside the Vatican walls into the Apostolic Palace. The books followed him to his retirement home.

‘In them are all my advisers,’ he said of his books in the 2010 book-length interview ‘Light of the World’. ‘I know every nook and cranny, and everything has its history.’

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

In time, this group of arch-conservatives, whose complaints were amplified by sympathetic US-based conservative Catholic media, would become a key source of opposition to Francis who responded to what he said were threats of division by reimposing the restrictions on the old Latin Mass that Benedict had loosened.

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

In his 2011 book, Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Christ, explaining biblically and theologically why there was no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death.

‘It’s very clear Benedict is a true friend of the Jewish people,’ said Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the interreligious relations office for the American Jewish Committee, at the time of Benedict’s retirement.

Yet Benedict also offended some Jews who were incensed at his constant defence of and promotion toward sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope accused by some of having failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust. And they harshly criticised Benedict when he removed the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the Holocaust.

Benedict’s relations with the Muslim world were also a mixed bag. He riled 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 characterised some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as ‘evil and inhuman’, particularly his command to spread the faith ‘by the sword’.

A subsequent comment after the massacre of Christians in Egypt led the Al Azhar centre in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Muslim learning, to suspend ties with the Vatican, which were only restored under Francis.

The Vatican under Benedict suffered notorious PR gaffes, and sometimes Benedict himself was to blame. He enraged the United Nations and several European governments in 2009 when, en route to Africa, he told reporters that the AIDS problem couldn’t be resolved by distributing condoms.

‘On the contrary, it increases the problem,’ Benedict said. A year later, he issued a revision saying that if a male prostitute were to use a condom to avoid passing HIV to his partner, he might be taking a first step toward a more responsible sexuality.

But Benedict’s legacy was irreversibly coloured by the global eruption in 2010 of the sex abuse scandal, even though as a cardinal he was responsible for turning the Vatican around on the issue.

Documents revealed that the Vatican knew very well of the problem yet turned a blind eye for decades, at times rebuffing bishops who tried to do the right thing.

Benedict had firsthand knowledge of the scope of the problem, since his old office – the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he had headed since 1982 – was responsible for dealing with abuse cases.

In fact, it was he who, before becoming pope, took the then-revolutionary decision in 2001 to assume responsibility for processing those cases after he realised bishops around the world weren’t punishing abusers but were just moving them from parish to parish where they could rape again.

And once he became pope, Benedict essentially reversed his beloved predecessor, John Paul, by taking action against the 20th century’s most notorious paedophile priest, the Reverend Marcial Maciel. Benedict took over Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order held up as a model of orthodoxy by John Paul, after it was revealed that Maciel sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.

In retirement, Benedict was faulted by an independent report for his handling of four priests while he was bishop of Munich; he denied any personal wrongdoing but apologised for any ‘grievous faults’.

As soon as the abuse scandal calmed down for Benedict, another one erupted.

In October 2012, Benedict’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted of aggravated theft after Vatican police found a huge stash of papal documents in his apartment. Gabriele told Vatican investigators he gave the documents to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi because he thought the pope wasn’t being informed of the ‘evil and corruption’ in the Vatican and that exposing it publicly would put the Church on the right track.

Once the ‘Vatileaks’ scandal was resolved, including with a papal pardon of Gabriele, Benedict felt free to take the extraordinary decision that he had hinted at previously: He announced he would resign rather than die in office as all his predecessors had done for almost six centuries.

‘After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited’ to the demands of being the pope, he told cardinals.

He made his last public appearances in February 2013 and then boarded a helicopter to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, to sit out the conclave in private. Benedict then largely kept to his word that he would live a life of prayer in retirement, emerging only occasionally from his converted monastery for special events and writing occasional book prefaces and messages.

Usually they were innocuous, but one 2020 book – in which Benedict defended the celibate priesthood at a time when Francis was considering an exception – sparked demands for future ‘popes emeritus’ to keep quiet.

Despite his very different style and priorities, Francis frequently said that having Benedict in the Vatican was like having a ‘wise grandfather’ living at home.

Benedict was often misunderstood: Nicknamed ‘God’s Rottweiler’ by the unsympathetic media, he was actually a very sweet and fiercely smart academic who devoted his life to serving the church he loved.

‘Thank you for having given us the luminous example of the simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord,’ Benedict’s longtime deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, told him in one of his final public events as pope.

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

Born 16 April 1927 in Marktl Am Inn, in Bavaria, Benedict wrote in his memoirs of being enlisted in the Nazi youth movement against his will in 1941, when he was 14 and membership was compulsory. He deserted the German army in April 1945, the waning days of the war.

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

His brother Georg was a frequent visitor to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo until he died in 2020. His sister died years previously. His ‘papal family’ consisted of Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, his longtime private secretary who was always by his side, another secretary and consecrated women who tended to the papal apartment.

Major writings of Pope Benedict 


Deus Caritas Est – ‘Christian Love’, 2005

Spe Salvi – ‘Christian Hope’, 2007

Caritas in Varitate – ‘Charity in Truth’, 2009

Spiritual Writing

 3 Volumes of Jesus of Nazareth

Vol. 1 – Baptism in the Jordan to Transfiguration

Vol. 2 – Holy Week to the Resurrection

Vol. 3 – Infancy Narratives

His best-known work, Introduction to Christianity, written in 1968, considered one of his most important and widely-read books, presents a ‘narrative Christology’ that demonstrates the place for faith is in the Church.

Benedict was no mere reactionary. A kindly, broad-minded, often charming character, he recognised the necessity for swift and decisive action against priests and bishops implicated in the Church’s sexual scandals. He was a strong and conciliatory voice for ecumenism and, as pope, kept on writing about the complicated, contradictory nature of religious belief.

A prayer for the soul of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Father, eternal shepherd,

hear the prayers of your people for your servant Benedict,

who governed your Church with love.

In your mercy, bring him with the flock once entrusted to his care

to the reward you have promised your faithful servants.

May he who faithfully administered the mysteries

of your forgiveness and love on earth,

rejoice with you for ever in heaven.

In your wise and loving care,

you made your servant teacher of all your Church.

He did the work of Christ on earth.

May your Son welcome him into eternal glory.

May your servant whom you appointed high priest of your flock

be counted now among the priests in the life of your kingdom.

Give your servant the reward of eternal happiness

and let your mercy win for us the gift of your life and love.

We entrust your servant to your mercy with faith and confidence.

In the human family he was an instrument of your peace and love.

May he rejoice in those gifts for ever with your saints.


Source: Vatican News