Joseph Ratzinger died in the Vatican at the age of 95 this Saturday, December 31, the Vatican announced. He died nearly nine years after renouncing his office, a rare decision. His pontificate was to be one of transition, it had been marked by controversy.
His Holiness Benedict XVI, Roman pontiff emeritus since his resignation from the See of Saint Peter in February 2013, died peacefully this Saturday, December 31 at the age of 95, in the Mater Ecclesiae monastery reserved for former Vatican religious where he devoted himself to prayer and meditation. Joseph Ratzinger was the 265th pope of the Catholic Church, the eighth from Germany.
History will first remember that he was the first pontiff since Gregory XII in 1415 to resign. In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica in 2016, Benedict XVI said that it was a trip to Mexico that had led him to this decision. “I experienced the limits of my physical resistance”, he detailed with humility. A few weeks later, he was due to go to World Youth Day in Brazil. “It had become clear that I could not take part in WYD. So, in a relatively short time, I had to decide on the date of my retirement”. “For the Good of the Church”he said at his last general audience.
A very conservative line
At 86, Benedict XVI had thus put an end to eight years of pontificate, leaving the throne to Jorge Mario Bergoglio who would succeed him two weeks later under the name of Francis. If the two popes still alive had a relationship “paternal and fraternal”, their style was however very opposite. Their vision of the Church too.
Joseph Ratzinger defended a very conservative line, especially on major social issues such as abortion, homosexuality or euthanasia. Already in 1986, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the role of guardian of the temple entrusted to him by John Paul II in 1981, he was at the origin of the firm condemnation, by the Vatican, of homosexual marriage. . In 2004, he also opposed “radical feminism”, believing that it undermined family values.
A key role during the Second Vatican Council
During the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) where he played a primordial role despite his young age, Joseph Ratzinger nevertheless appeared as a brilliant, rather liberal theologian, the architect of a profound renovation of the Roman Curia. But it is said that the events of 1968, a social protest that left France to irrigate Europe, pushed him towards these more conservative theses, in order to defend Catholic values.
Ordained a priest in 1951 after a youth marked by the war and his opposition to Nazism, graduated with a doctorate in theology in 1953, which enabled him to teach at the university for two decades, he was consecrated Bishop of Munich in March 1977, then Cardinal three months later by Paul VI. During the first conclave in 1978, he became closer to Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II two months later. The beginning of a deep friendship and a collaboration that will last until the death of the Holy Father. In 2002, the latter had moreover approved his election as Dean of the College of Cardinals.
Four conclave towers
It is therefore no surprise that Joseph Ratzinger was appointed by his peers to succeed him on April 19, 2005, during a very short conclave. Four rounds of election will have been enough to decide between the German cardinal and… the Argentinian Jorge-Mario Bergoglio, representative of a more reformist line. After a pontificate of 26 years, the third longest in history behind those of Saint Peter and Pius IX, the cardinals leave the impression of having chosen a pope of tradition and above all of transition, in order to allow the Church to absorb the legacy of John Paul II. The age of the new pontiff, 78, like Clement XII in 1730, seems to reflect this orientation.
Back to basics
Since his election, however, Benedict XVI has done more than manage the day-to-day affairs of the Vatican. Admittedly breaking with his predecessor on the form, he never ceased to revitalize and clarify the Gospel message, to work towards a return to the sources of the Christian faith in the face of a society that he considered more and more dehumanized. . The work of a theologian more than a head of state perhaps.
Because of his eight years at the head of the Church, we have especially remembered the crises and the controversies. The one he triggered in 2006 by denouncing violence in the name of religion in an indirect allusion to Islam and which he managed to appease by praying in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul alongside the Grand Mufti. Or when he decides to lift the excommunication of four fundamentalist bishops in 2009. Above all, he is the pope who had to face the flood of revelations on sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy on children. His request for “sorry” in 2010, marked by strong measures against pedophilia, remained a highlight of his pontificate. Without, however, diminishing the image of an institution that cultivates secrecy to protect its own.
Benedict XVI was not de facto the greatest architect of the modernization of the Church. But by his surprise resignation in 2013, he leaves the image of a pope who will have placed spirituality above everything, and even above the power of men. Another way to go down in history.