Pope Benedict XVI, who led the Catholic church from 2005 until his resignation in 2013, passed away on Saturday at the age of 95, three days after Pope Francis issued a dire health alert.
Francis will preside over Thursday’s funeral for Benedict in St. Peter’s Square, according to the Vatican. His body will lie at St. Peter’s Basilica starting on Monday so that the faithful can pay their respects.
The coexistence of two popes, which was unprecedented in recent history and raised tensions between opposing camps in the Vatican, has come to an end with Benedict’s passing. It makes it easier for Pope Francis, his successor, to decide whether to eventually follow Benedict by retiring, which would have been impossible given that there would have been three popes.
Benedict received heartfelt tributes from Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, who described his 2010 visit to the UK as a historic occasion. Other world leaders, such as Germany’s Olaf Scholz, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, and Ireland’s Michael D. Higgins, also paid their respects.
The head of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, described him as a scholar, pastor, and a man of God who would be remembered for “his courtesy, his gentleness, the perceptiveness of his mind, and the openness of his welcome to everyone that he met.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury and Anglican Justin Welby referred to Benedict as “one of the greatest theologians of his age.”
Pope Francis stated that Benedict was “very sick” earlier this week during his weekly audience and urged people to pray for him.
Benedict was a very conservative pontiff whose reign was overshadowed by sexual abuse scandals in the church. He was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger in Germany in 1927. He left office with a tumultuous reputation after a sometimes polarizing papal tenure.
He was raised in rural Bavaria as the son of a police officer, and at the age of 14 he fulfilled the requirement to join the Hitler Youth before serving in the German army during World War II. He deserted toward the end of the conflict and was briefly detained by US forces as a prisoner of war.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, he later rose to prominence within the Vatican and was Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man. He held the title of “God’s rottweiler” during his 24 years as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican division formerly known as the Inquisition.
Clerical sexual abuse allegations and their cover-up allegedly started to surface during his leadership. His detractors claimed he was incapable of comprehending the seriousness of the crimes and the scope of the crisis, which peaked several years after his election as pope in April 2005.
The Vatican was rocked by the theft of confidential documents, many of which later surfaced in an exposé of alleged corruption, in addition to the flood of allegations, lawsuits, and official reports relating to sexual abuse and the priests’ complicity in covering it up. A Vatican court found Paolo Gabriele, the pope’s personal butler, guilty of stealing the documents in October 2012. He testified during the trial that he had been fighting “evil and corruption.”
Regarding homosexuality and contraception, Benedict had no compunctions. Liberation theology, a radical movement that started in South America in the 1960s and promoted clerical social activism among the poor and marginalized, had been strongly opposed by him.
The church was in disarray after his abrupt resignation at the age of 85 in February 2013, the first pope to do so since the Middle Ages. He claimed at the time that he lacked the stamina to continue as the head of an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. He said, “I have had to acknowledge my inability to adequately carry out the ministry entrusted to me.
He accepted the title of Pope Emeritus and vowed to devote his time to personal prayer while remaining “hidden from the world.” After retiring, he spent his time reading, writing letters and articles, hosting visitors, and playing the piano in a monastery in Vatican City.
But Francis’ attempts to reform the church and refocus it on helping the poor were opposed by those who still saw the former pope as a strong conservative influence. He frequently expressed his opinions in letters, articles, and interviews. Benedict published a 6,000-word letter in April 2019, two months after Francis called a historic Vatican conference on sexual abuse, claiming that the abuse was a result of a 1960s-era culture of sexual freedom.
Benedict spoke out in support of clerical celibacy in January 2020, as Francis was considering allowing married men to become priests in specific situations. He claimed that priestly celibacy safeguarded the Catholic Church during its time of crisis in a book titled From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church.
The Two Popes, a Netflix documentary about the ostensibly cordial relationship between Benedict and Francis, was airing when the controversy broke out, revealing tensions between competing Vatican factions.