What measures the greatness of a pope? A Time magazine cover? Millions of Twitter followers?
Pope Benedict XVI, whose life ended on the very last day of 2022, will be remembered as a man whose life was anchored in academia. He was a theologian who taught us through scholarly encyclicals. He was as much an introvert as both his predecessor and successor — St. John Paul II and Francis, respectively — were extroverts.
But Benedict was also known for more, particularly for being the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to retire, when convention for his kind was to serve till their last hour on earth.
That decision of his created an awkward and captivating arrangement that pervaded the Catholic church. Two popes — Benedict from the past and Francis from the present — one traditionalist, the other reformist and both cloaked in white robes and invested with moral authority, coexisted on the same miniscule grounds of the Vatican.
The strange duality, which inspired the film “The Two Popes” and captured the public imagination, has become the new abnormal in the Vatican for nearly a decade.
The oddness, unprecedented in the modern era of the church, persisted after the passing of Benedict on Dec. 31, 2022, at the age of 95 — prompting a living pope to preside over the funeral of his predecessor.
Popes who resigned prior to Benedict did not have a gracious post-papal life, or even death.
When Celestine V stepped down in 1294 to live like a monk, his successor, Pope Boniface VIII, in part fearing a rival claim, threw him in jail and deprived him of a pope’s funeral when he died in 1296. When Gregory XII stepped down from the throne in 1415, the last pope to resign before Benedict, he reverted to being a cardinal and received the funeral rites reserved for a cardinal when he died two years later. In 1802, Pius VII presided over the funeral of his predecessor, Pius VI, whose body returned to the Vatican after he died in 1799 in exile.
Benedict’s resignation was made all the more stunning by the manner he delivered it — in a seemingly offhand remark made while speaking Latin at a regular meeting with cardinals. It broke with his beloved church tradition, palpable in the lace of his clothes and the Latin of his liturgy, and set a modern precedent.
Aside from retiring at what may be deemed the peak of his papacy, Benedict also showed the pontiff community that it’s alright for them to apologize for their faults. In fact, his assertion was popes were no less human than others, and they should say sorry when they do wrong.
Benedict’s powerful sense of remorse surfaced when he asked for forgiveness from victims of sexual abuse in Catholic churches in February 2022, some 10 months before his passing.
“I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness,” the former pope said in a statement published then.
“I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate,” Benedict added.
Benedict’s apology came through after he was accused in an investigative report of failing to act over child sexual abuse during his time as archbishop of Munich. But despite his apologies, Benedict’s legal advisers also released a “fact check,” hitting back at specific allegations of a cover-up against the 94-year-old former pope.
“In none of the cases examined by the expert opinion did Joseph Ratzinger have knowledge of acts or suspicion of acts of sexual abuse of priests,” said the fact-check that referred to the pope by his birth name. “The expert opinion presents no evidence that it is otherwise,” it added.
Benedict initially claimed to be unaware of the child-abusing behavior of a priest who remained in pastoral care roles under his watch in the diocese of Munich and Freising.
Yet, the former pope admitted that he had attended a meeting in which the child-abusing past of that priest was discussed and that he had previously provided false information. He later said his wrong statement was the “result of an oversight in the editing of his statement.”
According to the report, presented on January 20, at least 497 children and adolescents were sexually abused by priests, deacons or other Church employees in the Archdiocese of Munich between 1945 and 2019.
Born in a small town in Germany in 1927, young Joseph Ratzinger was required to join the Hitler Youth at age 14, and was conscripted into an anti-aircraft unit in the German army in 1943. He deserted, and was taken prisoner by the Americans.
He entered priesthood after the war and rose to become a cardinal. In the powerful position as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler” as a rigid enforcer of church policy. It was a characterisation his biographer John Allen said Ratzinger worked hard to change.
“He was seen as harsh, as authoritarian, as controlling… and it was important to him, right out of the gate, to revise that… public image, and I think by and large he did so quite successfully,” said Allen.
He did it by being what he really was: a teacher, and one who spoke clearly and without undue theological jargon.
As pope, Benedict’s weekly audiences at the Vatican drew huge crowds, but his efforts at inter-religious dialogue sometimes fell short.
He offended many Jews by reinstating a bishop who denied the size of the Holocaust, and then stopped short of an apology on a visit to the Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem.
“They lost their lives. But they will never lose their names,” he said.
On a trip to Africa he dismissed condoms as a way to prevent AIDS. He called gay marriage a threat to humanity, and held firm to doctrines such as no female priests.
But he also embraced modern technology. Benedict was the first pope to do a TV question-and-answer session — albeit with pre-screened questions — and he oversaw the launch of an official Vatican website and a papal Twitter account.
During a trip to the U.S. in 2008, he made a powerful symbolic visit to Ground Zero in New York.
As age began to take its toll, Benedict went to Cuba and Mexico in defiance of his doctor’s wishes, but the challenges only grew.
Critics hit out at his slow response to the decades of cover-up of the scandal of sexual abuse by priests. And then came the scandal of leaked documents that disclosed corruption and mismanagement in the Vatican.
He made up for his indiscretions by being the first pope to meet with victims of sex abuse and offer a public apology, condemning what he called “filth” in the church. He also began a reform of the Vatican finances.
Eight years at the top of the Church hierarchy, Benedict resigned — bowing out with grace and setting the bar for his successors.
* Banner picture: Marco Secchi, Getty Images 2011