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Jan 5, 2023

The Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI

Michael Ruszala

Editor’s note: On the day that he is laid to rest at the Vatican, we join with the universal Church in praying for the repose of the soul of Pope Benedict XVI, who loved the Lord with all his heart, all his soul, all his mind, and all his strength.

Do you remember where you were on April 24th, 2005?

I was at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio studying theology when an announcement came on television that day – white smoke was seen over the Sistine Chapel during the conclave to elect John Paul II’s successor. A large group of students huddled around a small screen in the student center at Franciscan University, eagerly awaiting the official announcement of a new pope. There was a sense of anxiety as to who could possibly replace John Paul II, whose saintly reign stretched long before most of our births. The Cardinal protodeacon proclaimed, “Gaudium magnum annuncio vobis… Dominum Josephum …” Whether or not all the students understood Latin, most everyone immediately recognized that ‘Josephum’ most likely meant Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cries of joy immediately followed, even before the cardinal protodeacon could pronounce ‘Ratzinger’ at the end of another long Latin formula, far across the sea in Rome. We knew Cardinal Ratzinger. We loved his theology and trusted his fatherly care for the Church. We trusted that the Church was in good hands and that the beloved late John Paul II was smiling down on his successor.

Pope Benedict would have been long remembered even if he had not become pope. He was one of the world’s leading theologians and was a pivotal and long-serving Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during a crucial time in modern Church history. Pope Benedict was a great teacher of the faith and was a true father for the Church in our times. He was also the first pope to resign in over 700 years, an act which Pope Francis has extolled as one of exemplary humility. 

Before Becoming Pope

Joseph Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927, in Bavaria. His family was very devout. In fact, his older brother Georg also became a priest, and his sister Maria a teacher with a heart for service. Joseph was always studious and reserved, and wanted to become a priest and a scholar. The Ratzinger family had lost a disabled cousin to Nazi eugenics, and were very anti-Nazi, as much as was possible within German society at the time. But both Joseph and his brother, as able-bodied men, were drafted into the German military during World War II. Both were likewise captured and spent time as American POW’s in separate camps. After the war, the brothers attended seminary together and were ordained together as well in 1951. Both had specialized interests and talents which complemented their priestly ministry. Fr. Georg became a renowned sacred choral director, and Fr. Joseph a university professor, having earned his doctorate in theology and passed his habilitation lecture. Fr. Joseph also loved music and enjoyed playing classical piano in his spare time – a love that remained with him his whole life. 

During his academic career, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger published numerous theological works and held academic positions at multiple universities. Because of his erudition, Fr. Joseph was selected by the influential progressive Cardinal Frings, archbishop of Cologne, as a theological expert, or peritus, for the Second Vatican Council. In this role, Fr. Joseph became a leading voice at the Council and helped to draft the Declaration on the Word of God, Dei Verbum, in which he emphasized the unity of Scripture and Tradition in their source, Jesus the divine Word of God. He was among the leading voices for organic growth and change within the Church during this period, and was thus himself a progressive. The riots of 1968, however, soured him to the progressive cause both in society and the Church. Though he never went contrary to his former theological principles, from then on he placed a greater emphasis on tradition and continuity, so that these would not be hastily lost in the midst of change, and especially change that was not organic. Symbolic of this, Fr. Joseph, who had earlier published his articles with the progressive journal Concilium, devoted to reform and change in the spirit of the Council, later became a founding member and regular contributor to Communio, which was devoted to reform in the sense of restoring continuity in the Church with Scripture and the Church Fathers. 

In 1977, Fr. Joseph was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising by Pope Paul VI and later that very year was elevated to the rank of Cardinal. In 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed by Pope John Paul II as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), after Cardinal Ratzinger had refused previous requests. He became one of John Paul’s most trusted advisors and assisted him in his efforts to provide an official interpretation of Vatican II. Nearly two decades after the Second Vatican Council, this was a time in which various theologians experimented with mixing various new ideas with Catholicism in the ‘spirit of Vatican II’. As Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger disciplined a number of prominent theologians who lead dissent from Magisterial teaching. He also wrote the CDF’s declaration on the relation of the Christ and Catholic Church to other faiths and denominations, Dominus Iesus, providing a clarification of the teachings from Vatican II. In it, Cardinal Ratzinger taught that all salvation comes through Christ through the Church, and that those outside the visible confines of the Church may have varying levels of partial communion with it. 

Pope John Paul II reigned for many years as pope, and so Cardinal Ratzinger likewise persevered a long time in his positions in the Curia. He submitted his resignation to the pope several times, wishing to retire to a life of scholarship and writing, but John Paul refused each time. At the time of Pope John Paul II’s eventual passing in April 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger held the position of Dean of the College of Cardinals. He preached the homilies both for his friend John Paul II’s funeral and the opening of the new conclave. At the conclave, he was elected on the second day of voting to be John Paul’s successor on April 19, 2005. He chose the name Benedict after Pope Benedict XV, promoter of peace among nations, and St. Benedict of Nursia, patron of Europe, with a mind to restoring Christian unity in Europe and promoting peace among nations. 

Photo credit:  M.Mazur/www.thepapalvisit.org.uk

A “Teaching” Pope

The press thought Benedict XVI would be a stern pope because of his past role in John Paul’s Curia, but he emerged as a fatherly figure, embracing the whole of the Church and extending goodwill to all. Attracted by his authenticity, the youth, who affectionately called him ‘B16,’ flocked to him for three World Youth Days in Cologne (2005), Sydney (2008), and Madrid (2011). Likewise following the example of his predecessor, Pope Benedict traveled extensively for pastoral visits around the world to strengthen the local churches in their faith. Interested in ecumenism from his interactions in his university days, Pope Benedict pursued reconciliation with the Priestly Society of St. Pius X and the Eastern Church and established an ordinariate for the reception of Anglican communities into full Communion with Rome while maintaining their own liturgical traditions. He allowed for priests to make freer use of the Traditional Latin Mass if desired. Pope Benedict also became one of the most-followed public figures on Twitter, beginning the new papal tradition of regularly tweeting up-building religious posts. Notably, he beatified Pope John Paul II (granting special dispensation for the usual waiting period). He also beatified John Henry Cardinal Newman, Mother Maryanne Cope, and beatified and canonized many others as well.

Pope Benedict was certainly a ‘teaching pope,’ standing up for truth against what he called the ‘dictatorship of relativism.’ In Regensburg, where he had once served as a professor, he presented an important lecture as pope in 2006 on a central theme of his pontificate – the unity of faith and reason.

Pope Benedict wrote three encyclicals and drafted a fourth, Lumen Fidei, which would be expanded upon and promulgated by his successor Pope Francis in 2013. Pope Benedict’s encyclicals were clear and deep, but also intended to be simple, serving as a catechesis on the theological virtues so basic to the Christian life – faith (Lumen Fidei under Pope Francis, 2013), hope (Spe Salvi, 2007), and charity (Deus Caritas Est, 2005). Pope Benedict promulgated a social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (2010), which in many ways anticipated the future teachings of Pope Francis on social justice and stewardship for the environment.

During his papacy, Pope Benedict also published a three-volume series Jesus of Nazareth, exemplifying biblical theology grounded in faith (verses the prevalent ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ that he decried), providing thoughtful reflection for readers around the world, and emphasizing the centrality of Christ in our faith. Pope Benedict loved the ancient traditions of the papacy and restored many of their trappings. This emphasized the dignity of the office and the continuity with tradition, which was likewise a theme of his pontificate. 

The Cross of Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict did not ask to be pope, and even considered the papacy to be his cross to bear. He was clearly countercultural, and the secular media tended to treat him with suspicion from the start. Some secularists and atheists took up vocal opposition to him. He had to face the aftermath of the ‘Vatileaks’ scandal, in which his own butler published an unauthorized book exposing corruption in the Vatican and portraying him as unable to handle the endemic problem. The clergy sex abuse scandals, from decades past, had reached a high point in the late 2000’s, and anger came to be directed at the top. Meanwhile, Pope Benedict continued to suffer with a heart condition and his doctors warned him to put a halt to his vigorous travels. Also, the world did not know that he had a pacemaker. 

On February 11, 2013, the 86-year-old Pope Benedict XVI shocked the cardinals and the world with a formal announcement of his resignation, effective on the 28th of that month. He was to follow in the example of thirteenth-century Pope St. Celestine V, the last pope to resign, who did so realizing that his gifts and calling were more to the monastery than to high office. Pope Benedict stated that the modern papacy required strength and charisma that he no longer had, and cited his age and infirmity. He chose the title ‘Pope Emeritus’ and chose to wear the white papal cassock and zucchetto without further papal attire. He promised allegiance to his successor and to speak sparingly so as to let him act unhindered, and promised to pray unceasingly for the Church. He believed that this course of action was God’s will for the Church. At 6 PM on February 28, 2013, the bells of St. Peter’s tolled to mark the end of Pope Benedict’s pontificate while he flew by helicopter to the papal summer residence, Castel Gondolfo, where he was greeted by large crowds of the faithful, cheering him and thanking him for his service to the Church. Spending his final years at a residence in the Vatican, he met a number of times with Pope Francis, who invited him to do so, and also made a handful of speeches and interviews, always voicing support for Pope Francis. 

Pope Benedict XVI was a great and holy man and a towering theologian. He served the Church faithfully and prudently and weathered storms courageously. Pope Francis said of him, “every time I have read the works of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, it becomes increasingly clear that he has done… ‘theology on his knees.’ On his knees because, even before being a great theologian and teacher of the faith, we see a man who truly believes, who truly prays, you see he is a man who embodies holiness, a man of peace, a man of God” (ncregister.com).

Featured image photo credit: M.Mazur/www.thepapalvisit.org.uk


Michael J. Ruszala is the author of several religious books, including Lives of the Saints: Volume I and Who Created God? A Teacher’s Guidebook for Answering Children’s Tough Questions about God. He holds a master of arts degree in theology & Christian ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Michael is Director of Family Faith Formation at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville, New York, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Niagara University in Lewiston, New York, and also a church organist. He lives outside Buffalo with his wife and children. For more information about Michael and his books, visit michaeljruszala.com.

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