VATICAN CITY -Former Pope Benedict XVI has died at the age of 95, the Vatican announced on Saturday.
Pope Benedict was the leader of the Catholic Church for almost eight years until 2013, when he became the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.
His Holiness Benedict XVI, was John Paul II’s right-hand man, chosen by the College of Cardinals on April 19 2005 to succeed him after his 26-year reign.
His death comes just days after Pope Francis asked for “special prayers” for his “very sick” predecessor.
A statement from Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said: “With pain I inform that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died today at 9:34 in the Mater Ecclesia Monastery in the Vatican. Further information will be released as soon as possible.”
The Vatican said Benedict’s remains would be on public display in St. Peter’s Basilica starting Monday for the faithful to pay their final respects.
He was the first German pope in almost 1,000 years. His election, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at the age of 78 (a year older than Pope John XXIII on being elected as a caretaker in 1958), surprised many, particularly those who had accepted an image of him, during his previous 24 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as the hardline enforcer of the Church’s teaching.
But nothing in his eight-year reign surprised the world so much as his abdication. He announced it in Latin without a hint of warning on the morning of February 11 2013, and it took effect as the bells of Castel Gandolfo rang out at eight o’clock in the evening of February 28, when he became the first Pope Emeritus who would witness the election of his successor.
The nearest thing to it in the Church’s history had been the abdication of Celestine V in 1294, for which Dante consigned him to the Inferno, though the Church soon afterwards declared him a saint.
At Benedict’s own election, the cardinals had been seeking a consolidation of Pope John Paul’s pontificate. There was no mistaking what they were voting for. He had made his approach clear in a sermon to those assembled for the conclave, contrasting immature relativism with an “adult” faith.
“To have a clear faith, according to the creed of the Church, is often labelled as fundamentalism,” he said. “A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognises nothing as absolute.”
The white smoke signalling his election billowed next day, a speedy result, at the fourth ballot.
Yet he did not come to the papacy with a fortress mentality. His was the reputation of a world-class theologian. An indicative event came five months later, when he invited Hans Küng to a four-hour meeting that extended over dinner.
Küng, a professor at Tübingen, had seen his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian revoked by Pope John Paul II in 1979. His requests for a meeting with John Paul were never met in 26 years.
After their meeting, Pope Benedict publicly praised Küng’s efforts to build a Weltethos (a universal moral structure recognisable by people of different religions or none). On Catholic doctrine they continued to disagree.
Though he launched investigations into the state of the Church in Ireland or the conduct of nuns in the United States, Pope Benedict showed himself less concerned with discipline than with the huge task of reversing the slide of Western Europe away from its Christian foundations.
He explained his choice of papal name by pointing to Benedict XV (reigned 1914-22) as an apostle of peace, and to the great monastic founder St Benedict of Nursia, “whose life evokes the Christian roots of Europe”.
A thorough academic, he began his reign with essentials, by writing in his first year an encyclical called Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), published in January 2006. One unlooked-for element in it was his incorporation of erotic love into the scheme of human and divine love.
To this he soon added a book, Jesus of Nazareth (English version, 2007). The subject was again central to Christian belief, but the status of the book was most unusual. It was written in a personal capacity, not as pope, and had “Joseph Ratzinger” on the cover. “Everyone is free to contradict me,” he declared. Yet sales of more than two million in a year indicated that pious Catholics could scarcely forget that the words came from the hand of the Pope.
Benedict was an old man in a hurry. He wanted to establish a legacy while his faculties remained intact, and he rapidly added two more encyclicals on big themes: Spe Salvi (“Saved by Hope”, 2007) and Caritas in Veritate (“Love in Truth”, 2009), on social justice. An expected encyclical on faith was left unfinished on his abdication.
He did complete his three-book study of Jesus in Scripture, with Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (2011) on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, and a third volume, on the infancy of Jesus (2012).
Reflecting his spiritual insight into the idea of friendship with Jesus, the three books also exemplified a “hermeneutic of faith”. In other words, Benedict’s interpretation of the Bible was consciously moulded by the faith expressed by the Church over the centuries. It was thus a counter-blast to shifting fashions of academic historical-criticism, with which the Pope in his academic career had been only too familiar.
The flavour of Benedict’s papacy was naturally very different from his predecessor’s. The aged Benedict was of a shy disposition and would not whip up the enthusiasm of a crowd even if he had had the strength. The world was different too, and there was to be no shifting of ideological blocs in the manner provoked by the visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland.
More than one hiccup in Benedict’s reign stemmed from his falling back into an academic way of talking, notably the Regensburg controversy over Islam.
Invited in 2006 to give a lecture at the German university where he had spent happy years as a professor, he made a passing reference to a dialogue in 1391 between a Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaeologus, and a Persian, in which the emperor had said: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only bad and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Such a citation in an academic paper would have been routine. Benedict apparently had no inkling of the storm it would cause, nor that his quotation would be taken as reflecting his own attitude, as it did not.
Quite apart from those determined to be shocked, many thought he ought to have appreciated the potential for outrage. Even in the medium term, however, no harm was done to Catholic-Islamic dialogue, which was under way at several levels before the lecture, and soon continued unabated.
Another piece of academic speculation in 2010 provoked headlines such as “Pope Benedict says that condoms can be used to stop the spread of HIV.” These were based on part of a book-length interview with Peter Seewald.
There could be, the Pope mused, “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality”, as when “a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralisation”.
These remarks came in answer to a question about a statement made a year earlier, on his way to Africa, that condoms were not the solution to the Aids crisis. “The problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics,” he had said, “on the contrary, they increase it.”
He tried to explain to Seewald what he meant: “Fixation on the condom implies a banalisation of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.”
Another controversy, which reflected real wickedness by some clergy, was over the sexual abuse of children. Benedict was deeply afflicted by the extent of the scandal that emerged. His expressions of shame and repeated apologies were sincere, and his attempts at effective investigation and punishment were honest. Yet the impression remained of a man unable to correct a former institutional blindness to the exact nature of such evils.
Pope Benedict’s attitude to the liturgy, chiefly the Mass, was no unthinking reversion to ways of the past. As a young man he had been familiar with the strong reforming liturgical movement in Germany. After the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, Ratzinger began to be troubled by forms of liturgy going beyond anything the council had envisaged.
He wrote a short book (published in English in 2000) called The Spirit of the Liturgy, reusing the title of a book by one of his heroes, Romano Guardini, a leader of the liturgical movement in Germany in the first half of the 20th century. Relating the liturgy to the theology of the cosmos and salvation, Ratzinger also made clear his preference for continuity with the past, for traditional music, and even for the priest facing the altar rather than towards the people.
It was consistent of him, then, to issue in 2007 a motu proprio allowing, at the request of the laity, parish Masses in the old rite in Latin, often called the Tridentine rite. The post-Vatican Council form of Mass of 1970, in Latin or the vernacular, still remained the ordinary form. Feelings ran high. In England, where limited permission for the old Mass had always been available, the Pope’s document was greeted enthusiastically by a minority and unenthusiastically by most of the bishops.
Of a piece with his eagerness to see the old Mass retained beside the new, was his hope that the schismatic followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1901-91), who rejected much of the Second Vatican Council, should be reconciled. In 2009 he lifted the excommunication on four illicitly consecrated Lefebvrist bishops, upon which it was discovered that one, Bishop Richard Williamson, also denied the fact of the Jewish Shoah.
Hurt that he should be suspected of repudiating reconciliation between Christians and Jews, the Pope wrote an unprecedented letter of apology to the world’s bishops. He admitted disarmingly: “I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on.”
The same year he made a diplomatic blunder in launching an initiative to bring Anglicans into the Catholic Church, without previous consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Rowan Williams, at a joint press conference in October 2009 with the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, made it clear that he had been offended.
The scheme, under a papal decree called Anglicanorum Coetibus, provided for the creation of personal ordinariates (a little like bishoprics of the armed forces), in which those from an Anglican background could retain something of their “heritage” while forming worshipping congregations in the Catholic Church, governed by their own bishops.
Some Anglicans saw it as a poaching expedition. But it was also a considered experiment in ecumenicism by Pope Benedict. Many thought that Australia might be the test-bed for the venture, but England proved to be the first place it was tried, with the establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in January 2011. It attracted six bishops, joined by about 900 lay people at Easter 2011.
An outward sign of inward disposition that reflected more in Pope Benedict’s character than a love of history was his weakness for old-fashioned papal garb. He wore the red shoes that Pope John Paul II had done away with. His stoles were wider and his mitres taller than the norm.
He experimented with an archaic form of pallium. He wore a mozzetta, a shoulder cape trimmed in winter with white ermine. He donned a camauro, a fur-trimmed red cap as worn by Pope Julius II in Raphael’s portrait. On Benedict, its look suggested Father Christmas, and it was dropped.
As far as Britain went, the general impression of Pope Benedict changed radically with his visit in 2010. Predictions were gloomy, with hostile demonstrations expected. Some young Foreign Office officials in a brain-storming session suggested that the Pope should apologise for the Spanish Armada and open an abortion clinic. Preparations were uncertain until the last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten of Barnes, took charge.
The Pope was greeted with practiced cordiality by the Queen at Edinburgh (circumventing the question of his staying at Buckingham Palace) and cheered by crowds. His addresses showed a close interest in Britain and love for her.
The turning-point that made the visit a runaway success was his address to both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, with several former prime ministers present.