Pope Benedict XVI, a prominent German theologian and conservative enforcer of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, broke with nearly 600 years of tradition by resigning, then lived behind the walls of the Vatican for nearly a decade as a The retired pope, still wearing his white robes, died Saturday at the age of 95, the Vatican said.
Just as Benedict’s resignation in 2013 shook the Roman Catholic Church to its core, his death once again thrusts the institution into lesser-known territory.
The death of a pope usually initiates a conclave to choose a new leader for the church, but Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, was appointed when Benedict stepped down. On Wednesday, it was Francis who announced Benedict’s eventual decline to the world.
Now, after a life of devotion to maintaining order and tradition in the church, Benedict’s death has thrown the church into a moment of uncertainty, with questions over how and in what capacity he will mourn and whether the living pope will officiate at the funeral or the deceased.
Regardless of which ceremony the Vatican ultimately decides to hold, Benedict’s death will be particularly sad for church conservatives.
Even before he was elected Pope on April 19, 2005, his supporters saw him as their intellectual and spiritual North Star, a powerful Vatican official in the face of growing secularism and changing Pressure, he insisted on church teaching to get more people to sit in the pews.
Critics of Benedict are more likely to remember him as a crackdown on dissent who did too little to address sexual abuse in the church, stumbled in some of his public statements and lacked the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II.
Francis fired or demoted many of Benedict’s appointees, realigned the church’s priorities and shifted its focus from setting and maintaining boundaries to pastoral inclusion.
In some ways, though, Francis continues Benedict’s legacy, notably in addressing the child sexual abuse crisis. Benedict, the first pope to meet the victims, apologized for the abuse John Paul II had allowed to worsen. He denounced “filth” in the church and excommunicated some guilty priests.
But abuse survivors and their advocates accused Benedict of not doing enough to punish several bishops in Germany, as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office while dealing with allegations against some priests. He has also been criticized for not doing anything to hold leadership accountable for covering up — and thus facilitating — child sexual abuse.
Benedict, born Joseph Alois Ratzinger, was ordained a priest in 1951 and was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, the same year he became a cardinal. Four years later, Pope John Paul II summoned Cardinal Ratzinger to Rome, where he became head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Doctrine, one of the Vatican’s most important positions charged with defending church orthodoxy.
He led the office for nearly 25 years.
After the death of John Paul II in 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger was chosen as his successor. He took the name of a 6th-century monk, the Benedictine of Nurcia, who founded the monastery and the Benedictine order and helped spread Christianity in Europe. The new Pope, as Benedict XVI, will seek to re-evangelize a Europe that is struggling to maintain its faith.
Eventually, Pope Benedict withdrew in a time of scandal and great stress. He cited his declining health, both “physical and mental”, as the reason. He said he resigned voluntarily, “for the good of the church”.
That resignation – the Pope’s first since 1415 – will likely be remembered as his most decisive.
After retiring to a monastery in the Vatican, he spent most of his time away from public life, devoting himself to prayer and meditation. Francis visited him and called him “a wise grandfather in the family”, although his supporters tried – and failed – to make him an alternative center of power.