Benedict XVI is typically characterized as an eyewitness to history more than its maker. He followed one of the most charismatic and beloved popes in history. His reign has been marked by debates over gay marriage, the church’s opposition to contraception and abortion, and sexual abuse scandals. However, despite his lower profile and leadership challenges, I view Benedict XVI as one of the most significant popes in recent history.
His remarkable life
Benedict was the first German to serve as pope in 482 years, and has authored more than 135 theological works. He has no driver’s license, but he is licensed to fly the papal helicopter. Benedict speaks German, Italian, English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Latin, and Portugese. He can read ancient Greek and biblical Hebrew. He presided over the funeral mass for John Paul II, the largest requiem mass in history with more than 400,000 attenders in St. Peter’s Square.
On the day of his papal election, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed the complexity of emotions that came with accepting his role as leader of the Catholic church: “On the one hand, a sense of inadequacy and human apprehension as I face the responsibility for the universal Church, entrusted to me yesterday . . . On the other, I have a lively feeling of profound gratitude to God.” He explained that he chose the name Benedict to follow in the footsteps of Benedict XV, the World War I pope who led “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.”
The German native was born to a policeman and cook in 1927. This was a particularly difficult time in German history. The first World War left Germany with a confused national identity and a crumbled economy, paving the way for the Nazis. The future pope saw soldiers beat his parish priest before mass. It was during these hard times that he learned “the beauty and truth of faith in Christ; fundamental for this was his family’s attitude, who always gave a clear witness of goodness and hope, rooted in a convinced attachment to the Church.”
Ratzinger was drafted into the German army, but deserted and became a U.S. P.O.W. After the war, he studied at the University of Munich and at the Higher School of Philosophy and Theology in Freising. In 1951, he received his priestly ordination. Soon he began teaching at Freising and also received his doctorate in theology with a thesis entitled “People and House of God in St. Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church.”
He took part in the Second Vatican Council (better known as Vatican II), which convened from 1962-1965 to address the Church’s relation to the modern world. Ratzinger was named by Pope Paul VI as the Archbishop of Munich and Freising in the spring of 1977. Cardinal Ratzinger presided over the Commission that created the new Catechism for the Catholic Church. He would later serve as Dean of the College of Cardinals and an Honorary Academic of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. After the death of John Paul II, he was elected pope in 2005.
His enduring legacy
Benedict followed one of the most charismatic and beloved popes in history. His resignation, announced on February 11th, 2013, shocked to the world. No pope has voluntarily left the post of the Bishop of Rome since 1415.
In an interview in 2010, Benedict stated: “When a Pope arrives at a clear awareness that he no longer has the physical, mental, or psychological capacity to carry out the task that has been entrusted to him, then he has the right, and in some cases, even the duty to resign.” He believed that he had reach that point in early 2013, saying that “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the [ship] of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.”
Many progressive Catholics consider him to be a defender of the old ways, seeking to bring more Latin back into the mass; many conservatives see him as weak in the face of Islam’s advance in Europe.
But still others see that this pope has engaged the postmodern relativism of our day with clarity and compassion. His well-received encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, begins: “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity.” When he was named Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, he stated, “in today’s world the theme of truth is omitted almost entirely, as something too great for man, and yet everything collapses if truth is missing.”
Pope Benedict XVI has consistently and graciously demonstrated the need for absolute truth and objective morality in our decaying society. For this conviction, his papacy has made a lasting contribution to the Church and our culture.