Former Pope Benedict Dies at 95

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who led the Catholic Church for nearly eight years before becoming the first pope to resign in six centuries, died Saturday at the age of 95.

Benedict’s death followed an appeal by Pope Francis to pray for his predecessor, with the Vatican announcing the former pontiff’s health had worsened due to “advanced age.”

When he made the shock announcement in 2013 that he would be stepping down, Benedict said he no longer had the physical and mental strength to serve as pope.

He rarely made public appearances in his retirement, dedicating the last years of his life to prayer and meditation as he lived in a former convent in the Vatican.

In a 2018 letter to Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, Benedict described “the slow withering of my physical forces,” saying he was “on an interior pilgrimage towards home.”

Early years

Born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927 in Marktl am Inn, Germany, he spent his youth in southeastern Germany near the Austrian border. He entered a seminary a year before the outbreak of World War II and would eventually be drafted into the German army, where he served in an anti-aircraft unit before eventually deserting in the late days of the war.

He returned to his theological studies, and in 1951 became an ordained priest. After years of teaching and serving as an adviser to the Second Vatican Council, in 1977 Pope Paul VI appointed Ratzinger archbishop of Munich and Freising and later made him a cardinal.

Ratzinger spent more than 20 years serving as the prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he was a close friend and adviser of Pope John Paul II.

He presided over the April 2005 funeral mass for John Paul II, and that same month was elected the 265th pontiff.

Papal legacy

Benedict’s time as pope included the fallout from child sex-abuse scandals involving clergy that emerged during John Paul II’s papacy. His response included expelling priests and both apologizing to and meeting with victims.

A January 2022 report accused him of failing to act in four cases during his time as archbishop of Munich.  In a letter released by the Vatican, Benedict acknowledged what he called “errors” in handling allegations of sexual abuse and said he could “only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness.”

In 2006, Benedict prompted protests from the Muslim world after a speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor stating what for some Muslims was seen as an attack on Islam.

In 2013, his butler was convicted of taking sensitive and confidential documents from the papal chambers and leaking them to journalists.

At the time of Benedict’s retirement, Brennan Pursell, one of Benedict’s biographers, told VOA he will be remembered first and foremost as a teacher.

“His legacy as pope will survive in his writings, above all, and his catechesis [religious/faith instruction], his encyclicals [papal letters], his various documents,” he said. “And for people who just read what’s online, they can get a sense of the awesome extent of this man’s contribution to church teaching.”

The Rev. Thomas Reece at Georgetown University said Benedict “had very strong ideas about church doctrine, orthodoxy, church traditions. He was not afraid to go after priests and religious and theologians who disagreed with him — basically try to silence them.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

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