Benedict XVI: two farewells and a legacy for history

The legacy of the pope who decided, for the first time in six centuries, to leave his post.

Joseph Ratzinger adopted the name Benedict XVI when, on April 19, 2005, he succeeded John Paul II as head of the Church. He began a journey which, unlike what had happened since 1415 – when Gregory XII was forced out of office to end the Western Schism – ended before his death. However, if, like Ratzinger, we take into account the freedom and the desire to leave the papacy, only two before him have done so in history: Clement I in 97 and Celestine V in 1294.

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This sign of courage and determination on the part of the Sovereign Pontiff was the last act of a career characterized by these two virtues. But, of course, they weren’t the only ones. Bringing together multiculturalism and respect for other religions was a characteristic trait of Benedict XVI’s identity. This is evidenced by the good relations he maintained during his lifetime with some of the main exponents of other doctrines, such as Cyril of Moscow, secular name of Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundiyev, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, who praised of Ratzinger after his death.

Cyril of Moscow underlined his theological facet which, according to him, “enabled him to contribute significantly to the development of inter-Christian cooperation, to the witness of Christ before a secularized world and to the defense of traditional moral values”. The last pope emeritus in six centuries was precisely that, a professor, a man of culture, a humanist, who wrote three books on Jesus during his eight years as bishop of Rome.


The road that led him to the Vatican

He deserted at the age of 16 after his unit disappeared from the Nazi army’s anti-aircraft batteries. Soon after, he began to study philosophy and theology at the University of Munich and trained to be ordained a priest in 1951 with his brother Georg. Only two years later he obtained his doctorate and in 1957 he became a university professor, where he taught fundamental theology at several German universities. His in-depth knowledge of the Second Vatican Council earned him the appointment of cardinal by Paul VI and, in 1981, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

This appointment, with which John Paul II opened the way to becoming Holy Pontiff, is the one that preceded the white smoke that, in 2005, indicated that the 265th Vicar of Jesus Christ had been elected. A position which, as he himself admitted when he was elected, he did not want: “At one point I prayed to God not to do this to me. Apparently this time he didn’t listen to me.” The one that listened for eight years was the Catholic Church, which had in Benedict XVI an element of harmony and understanding that went beyond the borders of its own religion.

Since John Paul II appointed him Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he has become the personal friend of the Pope and the guardian of the faith of the Church. At that time, the former pope saw in Ratzinger a successor endowed with a very important spiritual baggage, knowledge and the will to spread the message of Christ in all corners of the world. And he did it, with a message of brotherhood and closeness, even in scenarios that were not at all favorable to the Church. But this is how Benedict XVI decided to carry out his pontificate until the last of his journeys, which took him to Lebanon.


Lebanon: the last journey of Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI made 25 trips during his career as Vicar of Jesus Christ. He has done it all over the world, with a particular presence in Europe, as it could not be otherwise, including three trips to Spain. But that doesn’t mean he left the rest of the world behind, far from it. He undertook a series of journeys aimed at fostering interfaith understanding and bringing people of other cultures closer together. Cameroon, Angola, Turkey, Israel and Lebanon have witnessed this and have been able to see the Sovereign Pontiff spreading these ideas in person.

Benedict XVI’s messages on his last trip to the Middle East were crystal clear: “eradicate violence, work for peace and regain fraternal communion”. The Pope gave eleven speeches in the Lebanese country, and in each of them he sought to deepen this message, which may well continue to apply to the region today, ten years later. During the three days of Ratzinger’s visit, support and expressions of affection for the Pope grew daily. His arrival, marked by strict security measures, was not as warm as in other destinations.


However, his trip to Beirut resulted in an antagonistic farewell at the reception. The mass held on September 16, 2012 at the City Center Waterfront in Beirut was a historic event for the country. Most of the people who filled the place were Lebanese, but Syrian and Iraqi refugees were also represented, as well as pilgrims from neighboring countries such as Jordan and Turkey. “In the service of justice and peace, it is urgent to engage in a fraternal society”, said Benedict XVI in his homily, calling for “fostering communion”.

Another highlight of his visit to Lebanon was the signing of the apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente”. It contains the conclusions of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East held in Rome in October 2010. Ratzinger expressed his desire to “a guide to advance on the multifaceted and complex paths on which Christ goes before you”. He also expressed his gratitude to Beirut, and hoped that it “continues to allow the plurality of religious traditions, without letting itself be influenced by the voice of those who want to prevent it”.

Benedict XVI thus hailed the religious openness of a country which welcomed him with open arms and with which he wanted to forge links through his youth. At the headquarters of the Maronite Patriarchate of Bkirké, he met 26,000 young people who, waving Vatican and Lebanese flags, welcomed him warmly. The Pope transmitted to them a message of responsibility vis-à-vis the Church and their country: “It is a question for you of being actors of the future of your country and of fulfilling your role in society and in the Church”, thus ending his last journey as Sovereign Pontiff.


Its link with the Middle East

Lebanon, although the last and therefore the most special, is not the only trip Joseph Ratzinger has made to the Middle East. He indeed visited one of the countries which, for historical reasons, has always been surrounded by controversy and instability, namely Israel. He was received by the then President, Shimon Peres, during a visit marked by two messages repeated by the Pope throughout his stay in the Holy Land: “security and peace”.

Benedict XVI wanted to distance himself from a political vision of his visit to Israel and distance himself, as much as possible, from the conflict with Palestine. However, he displayed the position he had defended on many occasions, calling for the two peoples to have “a homeland of their own” with secure and “internationally recognized” borders. A supporter of a Palestinian state, Ratzinger saw his training as the only way to end “to the hostilities that have afflicted the Holy Land for so long”. He called on Israelis and Palestinians to “explore all possible avenues in the search for a just solution to the obstacles that remain to be overcome”.

AFP/ABIR SULTAN – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting of the new government at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020.

During this trip, the pope denounced anti-Semitism, calling for “not to deny Jewish suffering”. After praying for the victims of the Holocaust and meeting with six survivors, Ratzinger reaffirmed “the Church’s commitment to pray and work tirelessly so that hatred never reigns in the hearts of men.” This commitment to peace that Benedict XVI tried to transmit during his pontificate is one of the reasons that brought him to Israel, because he wanted to promote interreligious dialogue by being, as he said -even, “a pilgrim of peace”.

And the proof is that, 14 years after his trip to the Holy Land, his legacy remains intact. Israelis and Palestinians recognize the importance of the figure of Joseph Ratzinger and have sent a message expressing their sadness following the death of the one who was an important preacher of interreligious dialogue. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised the late pope and his “solidarity and support for the freedom and independence of the Palestinian people.” Likewise, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his condolences to the man he called “great spiritual leader and who wholeheartedly committed himself to the historic reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish world”.

AP/ALEX BRANDON – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

The fact that Netanyahu refers to a German and Orthodox theologian as a “true friend of the State of Israel and the Jewish people” demonstrates the important work that Benedict XVI accomplished during his eight years at the head of the Church. And that becomes even more important if you take into account his background during the Second World War, where he was a warrant officer in the anti-aircraft batteries of the Nazi army. However, it was often reported that he was a member of the Hitler Youth, which was never the case.

Joseph Ratzinger prematurely ended his career as Pope because he felt that the forces, due to his advanced age, were “no longer suitable”. He left his pontificate at a time when he felt he was no longer fit to represent the Church as its highest representative. His work as bishop of Rome has come to an end, but his teachings, his desire to spread religion and to conduct fraternal interreligious dialogue will remain forever.

Benedict XVI: two farewells and a legacy for history