Pope Benedict XVI is seen in this portrait released by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano April 28, 2005. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

In Memoriam: Pope Benedict XVI

Joseph Ratzinger (1927-2022) dedicated his earthly pilgrimage to our Savior and the Catholic Church

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By the time this article is published, there will have been thousands of such pieces written about Pope Benedict XVI, who died on Dec. 31, 2022. Most of the words will be positive, but there will be writers (and speakers) that attack the man who served as the Roman pontiff for eight years. Some will vilify Benedict because he was the pope during at least part of the period of the priest abuse scandals. Others will, according to their alleged firsthand knowledge of Benedict, disdain the man, claiming he was uncompromising and surrounded himself with “yes men” both before and after he served as pope. For each of these negative pieces — there will be 10 or 20 or more that tell a completely different story.

The sum here is that Benedict’s life was one of consequence — he dedicated his earthly pilgrimage to his Savior and the holy Catholic Church. Even his severest critic will have difficulty arguing with such a characterization of the 265th pope.

Benedict — Our Shepherd

Like many readers, I never met Pope Benedict XVI, was never in his presence and only saw him through the lens of the media and his numerous works. Yet, like every traditional Catholic, I knew him. He was the staunch defender of our beloved Catholic Church: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, gives a lecture in New York in January 1988. The pope emeritus died Dec. 31, 2022, at the age of 95 in his residence at the Vatican. CNS photo/KN

Unlike a U.S. government official who takes an oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution, a pope needs no oath-taking because he has been selected by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, among his most important roles is to protect and defend the teachings, the truths and the traditions of the Catholic Faith. We all, every member of the faithful, knew that Benedict would fulfill that role. He was our shepherd. We went to bed each night secure in knowing that, as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) and later as the pope, he would oppose anyone seeking to tinker with the Church, a Church established by our Lord Jesus. He said: “The Church belongs to Jesus Christ, and it is not a laboratory for theologians to experiment.”

When we Catholics started to drift away from Church teachings and succumb to temptations of the secular world, Benedict called us out through one of his homilies, books or encyclicals. He told us: “Dear Friends, may no adversity paralyze you. Be afraid neither of the world, the future, nor of your weakness. The Lord has allowed you to live in this moment of history so that, by your faith, his name will continue to resound around the world” (Address to youth at a prayer vigil at the Twenty-Sixth World Youth Day, Aug 20, 2011).

Pope Benedict was arguably the greatest theologian, the greatest churchman of the last 100 years. One commentator suggested, “He was the smartest man in the room, regardless of the room.” Benedict ranks on a level with our renowned and beloved Church Fathers.

He constantly reminded us of how we should relate to the holy Eucharist, that we should receive the Lord with humility, respect and with a posture that acknowledges that this is the greatest gift Jesus left us. In his Jan. 11, 2012, general audience, he called the Eucharist “the sacrament of love.”

In a 2019 extensive essay as pope emeritus he included these thoughts: “The declining participation in the Sunday Eucharistic celebration shows how little we Christians of today still know about appreciating the greatness of the gift that consists in his Real Presence. …The way people often simply receive the Holy Sacrament in communion as a matter of course shows that many see communion as a purely ceremonial gesture. Therefore, when thinking about what action is required first and foremost, it is rather obvious that we do not need another Church of our own design. Rather, what is required first and foremost is the renewal of the Faith in the reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament” (April 2019 essay, “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse”).

He uses his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, released in February 2007, to urge both clergy and laity to practice Eucharistic Adoration, stating that “great benefit would ensue from a suitable catechesis explaining the importance of this act of worship” (No. 67). Benedict encouraged reception of the Eucharist while kneeling and to receive on the tongue.

It was he, through a 2007 document, Summorum Pontificum, who brought back the traditional Latin Mass that had been much suppressed after the Second Vatican Council. He said in a letter to bishops discussing Summorum Pontificum, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot all of a sudden be entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

Pope Francis, in his general audience of Jan. 4, 2023, graciously acknowledged how Pope Benedict XVI guided us, calling him “a great master of catechesis. His acute and gentle thought was not self-referential, but ecclesial, because he always wanted to accompany us in the encounter with Jesus. Jesus, crucified and risen, the Living One, and the Lord, was the destination to which Pope Benedict led us, taking us by the hand. May he help us rediscover in Christ the joy of believing and the hope of living.”

Early Years

early life of Benedict
Joseph Ratzinger is pictured in 1943 during World War II as a conscript in the German anti-aircraft corps. In 1945 Ratzinger deserted from the German army. CNS photo/KNA

Born on April 16, 1927, at Marktl am Inn, Germany, near the Austrian border, Joseph Ratzinger was a product of a devout Catholic family and received a solid Christian foundation that would guide him all his life. As a young person growing up in Hitler’s Germany of the 1930s and ’40s, Ratzinger was required to register in the Hitler Youth; in 1943 he was conscripted into the regular German army and then stationed in Hungary. In that Nazi occupied country he saw firsthand the plight of the Jewish people. Eventually, Ratzinger deserted the army, was captured by the Americans and spent time as a prisoner of war. Released in 1945, he returned to the seminary and six years later was ordained a priest.

In the 1950s he earned a doctorate and became a professor of dogma and theology at Freising college. He would go on to hold professor of theology positions at universities in Bonn, Münster and Tübingen. He also served at the University of Regensburg where he was dean and then vice-rector. He was soon recognized as an “expert” in Christian theology and Church dogma. This God-gifted talent would be valuable as he continued his vocation in the Catholic Church and especially in his role at the Second Vatican Council.

Vatican II

No other event defines Pope Benedict as did the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He was barely 10 years a priest and college teacher of theology when he was called to be an adviser at the council. Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne selected Ratzinger, age 35, to provide expert theological advice as the cardinal’s adviser.

In this capacity, Ratzinger can be compared to the great St. Athanasius who, as a 27-year-old deacon, was selected to accompany his bishop, St. Alexander, to the Council of Nicaea in 325. In both instances, these young men influenced the products of the respective councils and went on to spend their lives defending the divinity of Jesus (in the case of Athanasius) and the teaching and doctrines of the Church (in the case of Ratzinger).

Father Joseph Ratzinger
Father Joseph Ratzinger talks with Cardinal Franz König of Vienna during the Second Vatican Council at the Vatican in 1962. CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Mainz archives, KNA

Father Ratzinger was wise beyond his years, he quickly recognized that the results of the Vatican II did not comprise a revolution, but an evolution. He would preach and advocate that position to the end of his life. While some in the Church found the council aftermath a time to dismember the Faith and recreate it in the image they imagined, Ratzinger saw it as an advancement of the teachings that had served the faithful for 2,000 years and was greatly troubled by the innovations fostered by the misinterpretations of the council. He believed and spoke out about how a virtual council had replaced the real council, and how it “created so many disasters, so many problems” (speech to the clergy of Rome, Feb 14, 2013).

He was the last link, the last influential participant, the last insider from the council who could speak with firsthand knowledge of how the results, the council documents, were shaped and what was intended.

But Vatican II was only one of the numerous achievements in the Church life of this priest who, in his early years, was becoming an extraordinary theologian. His insights into the problems of the Church were uncanny. As early as 1969, he said about the future Church: “She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges.”


Catechism of the Catholic Church

A major achievement in the life of Pope Benedict was his leadership in preparing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This was a monumental project as the most previous universal catechism was published in 1566 following the Council of Trent. Such an undertaking was the brainchild of a synod of bishops in 1985 and Cardinal Ratzinger’s role in creating this catechism is ofttimes overlooked.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger greets Pope John Paul II upon the pontiff’s arrival to West Germany in 1980. CNS photo

Ratzinger was part of that synod of bishops gathered on the 20th anniversary of Vatican II. From the bishops attending came a recommendation to develop a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals. Such a publication would serve as a point of reference for the catechisms or compendiums that are prepared in various regions.

Pope St. John Paul II (1978-2005) agreed with this recommendation and in 1986 commissioned 12 renowned cardinals and bishops, led by then Cardinal Ratzinger to draft a Church catechism.The work took nine years and produced a document 826 pages in length. Certainly, this is the most complete catechism ever published, containing hundreds of references, including Vatican II. During preparation, there were recommendations from all over the world and required extensive consultation and coordination efforts, all under the surveillance of Cardinal Ratzinger. His involvement in completion of this publication is attested to by the first line of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, Fidei Depositum, which serves as a preface to the catechism: “Guarding the deposit of faith is the mission which the Lord entrusted to his Church, and which she fulfills in every age.” These words are a tribute to Ratzinger, to his beliefs and convictions.


Most people entering the seventh decade of their life begin to look forward to retirement, to a time when someone else can shoulder the duties and responsibilities we faced during years of work. This was the case with Joseph Ratzinger when he turned 78 in 2005. But God didn’t have retirement in mind for this holy man; instead of slowing down, Ratzinger was elected by his cardinal peers, on the second day of the occuring conclave, April 19, 2005, as pope of the Catholic Church — leader of over 1 billion Catholics.

Benedict resignation
Pope Benedict XVI reads his resignation in Latin during a meeting of cardinals at the Vatican in this Feb. 11, 2013, file photo. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

It had been nearly 950 years since a German was elected as pontiff (Victor II, r. 1055-57) and only four other popes (age 79) were older than Benedict when he was elected. (At death, he would be the oldest pope — in this case, emeritus — in history.)

Instead of being in control of his time, of his life, now everyday he was pulled from place to place, faced with a new issue, a new crisis, a new dilemma. For Benedict, being surrounded by cameras and microphones incessantly, where every word is replayed again and again, must have been pure drudgery.

He was, in addition to being the supreme leader of the Catholic Church, a head of state, and in that role he was expected to be a politician. Pope Benedict had many virtues, but no one thought of him as a politician, and he never pretended to be one. He was an academic, a writer of books, a thinker, desiring to live simply.

Now, if any one of us are subjected to this kind of trying situation in our advanced years, and at the same time have health issues, it would be difficult to accomplish the goals expected in whatever line of work we were in. Benedict saw what happened to Pope John Paul II, who, at the end of his pontificate, had difficulty responding to the stressful workload. Benedict did not want to reach a point where he could not perform. Better, he concluded after much prayer and meditation, to give up this responsibility to someone else. In addition to the overwhelming duties, expectations and poor health were scandals that rocked the Church on his watch: abusive priests, the Vatican Bank, Vatileaks (his butler stole and sold Benedict’s private papers to a journalist).


Words of Hope on a Papal Visit to America

On his apostolic visit to the United States, celebrating Mass at Washington Nationals Stadium on April 17, 2008, Pope Benedict said: “Dear friends, my visit to the United States is meant to be a witness to ‘Christ our Hope.’ Americans have always been a people of hope: your ancestors came to this country with the expectation of finding new freedom and opportunity, while the vastness of the unexplored wilderness inspired in them the hope of being able to start completely anew, building a new nation on new foundations. To be sure, this promise was not experienced by all the inhabitants of this land; one thinks of the injustices endured by the native American peoples and by those brought here forcibly from Africa as slaves. Yet hope, hope for the future, is very much a part of the American character. And the Christian virtue of hope — the hope poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the hope which supernaturally purifies and corrects our aspirations by focusing them on the Lord and his saving plan — that hope has also marked, and continues to mark, the life of the Catholic community in this country.”


As leader of the CDF, in 2001 he convinced Pope John Paul to take authority for dealing with sexual abuse cases away from the bishops and give it to the CDF. This reduced the time involved in dealing with the cases and removed hundreds of priests from their clerical roles. As pope, he continued to be involved with the work of the CDF regarding sexual abuse among the clergy.

He was personally accused of ignoring four priest abuse cases that took place while he was the archbishop of Munich in the 1970s. Benedict said he didn’t remember the cases but that ignoring them was a mistake for which he apologized. During his many papal trips, he visited with anyone who had been abused by a priest.

While he has been cited by Church officials and his biographers for effectively responding to each scandal, in the general media there was little credit given. Because of his timid, humble personality and declining health, he had difficulty continually dealing with the stress and measuring up to the rigors that the world demanded. Likely the scandals, no matter his efforts, weighed heavily on him.

He did not take his decision to resign lightly but meditated and prayed for months. In his resignation statement he wrote (in part) “in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.” This must have been a gut-wrenching decision. His resignation took effect on Feb. 28, 2013, and as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI he lived in the Vatican until his death.

In his homily at Benedict’s funeral Mass, Pope Francis said: “We too, as an ecclesial community, want to follow in his steps and to commend our brother into the hands of the Father. May those merciful hands find his lamp alight with the oil of the Gospel that he spread and testified to for his entire life.”

No doubt our beloved Pope Benedict will be received with joy and mercy by Our Lord. Many will remember that touching scene at Benedict’s funeral, when as the coffin was being carried inside St. Peter’s, Pope Francis bid a final farewell blessing and touched the coffin. In that gesture, Pope Francis represented us all.

The Church did not die with Peter, nor will it die with the loss of Benedict. It is here forever led by the Pope Francis and those supreme pontiffs who will follow.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Pennsylvania.


Future Acclaim

Already Pope Benedict XVI’s name is mentioned for sainthood and that he should be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. Selecting him as a Doctor of the Church is pretty much a no-brainer. He wrote over 60 books, three papal encyclicals, four exhortations and some 1,300 articles. He also gave homilies, speeches and letters, each succinctly and clearly delivered.

The prompting of the Holy Spirit is easily discerned in these beautifully crafted documents. Benedict began his three-book effort called “Jesus of Nazareth” when he was head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith and completed it when he was the pope. These special books guide us to a personal relationship with our Savior. Among his other highly praised books: “Introduction to Christianity” (Ignatius Press, $19.95); “The Spirit of the Liturgy” (Ignatius Press, $19.95); “Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today” (Ignatius Press, $17.95); “God is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life” (Ignatius Press, $17.95).

He influenced the language in many of the documents issued by the Church Fathers at Vatican II and his three papal encyclicals are filled with wisdom: Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), Spe Salvi (“Saved by Hope”) and Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”).

Possessing skills as a teacher of Catholic dogma and theology is another key trait of the doctors and one that Benedict particularly demonstrated: in a university setting, in his profound writings, and in his work with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He also traveled all over the world bringing the Gospel and hope to people everywhere. In death, his writings will continue as a source of instruction and inspiration for future generations.

Pope Benedict indeed has all the academic credentials to be selected as a Doctor of the Church; however, every person so named was given that honor only after being canonized. Canonization ensured they satisfied a basic criterion for becoming a Church Doctor — that is, they each possessed a high degree of sanctity. A pope or Church council can acclaim someone as Doctor of the Church. Singling out a person for sainthood is, of course, a much more detailed process.


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