The scholar of the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, was exalted by a crowd of hundreds at a memorial Mass at St. Agnes Cathedral on Jan. 6.
Known for his love of literature and as a formidable theologian, Benedict died on Dec. 31, at age 95. He was born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl, Bavaria, and lived a complicated life, brought up in Nazi Germany and reigning as Pope during turbulent times in the Catholic Church. He made history as the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years.
“He was always open with a humility, of intellectual truthfulness, to listen to other people, given to him their reactions, whether they were positive or critical,” retired Bishop William Murphy said during the Mass.
“The world needed Pope Benedict XVI; it need not forget him now,” Murphy said. “The church is a better church because of him. His concern for the abused, and his efforts to rid the church of what he called ‘that filth’ is one of the (examples) of his truthfulness, his honesty, his holiness … God knew that we needed him. And God gave him to us. We now must keep his memory, and continue to be guided by his example.”
A literary legacy
Murphy spoke of Benedict’s book “Jesus of Nazareth,” a three-volume series he wrote following his ascension to the papacy in 2005. In it, he called the church to embrace a biblical maturity, not only to embrace the historical-critical method and all of its wisdom but also to embrace and rediscover the early Christian figureheads and emulate them.
Bishop John Barres also commented on the series, saying, “Most of all, he reminded us that the word of God is inspired.”
For Barres, the day was one not of sadness, but of thanksgiving, giving thanks to God for “this great churchman who was so humble, so wise. So self-effacing, he really didn’t want to be the Holy Father, and yet embrace God’s will,” Barres said. “And just the beautiful witness he was to truth and charity, that witnessing to truth in our global world and in history is always something that liberates humanity. And so, he was a great beacon of truth. And he did it in such a humble way. He’s one of the great intellects of the 20th century.”
As a young man, Benedict was one of the key theologians of the Second Vatican Council and was key to the critical teaching of the Bible. He wasn’t concerned with moral relativism and what the culture was saying at the time, Barres said, but was true to the scripture, and because of that he was “interiorly free.”
The legacy he lives behind is one of “holiness,” Barres added, and “a legacy of global Catholic mission and a legacy of intellectual charity. He was a biblical theologian, a dogmatic theologian, and a liturgical theologian. He was incredibly versatile.”
After the Mass, one congregant, Mary Tierney was at a loss for words because of the emotions of the day. Benedict’s death, she said, was “A loss for the church, a great loss for the church.”
A towering intellect, a misunderstood man
Nancy Dibeneditto, who is studying for her master’s in theology, had much to say about Benedict’s literary teachings, having just learned what Murphy talked about during the Mass.
“What he was saying, I just studied in one of my classes,” Dibeneditto said. “I had to read a book by Ratzinger, ‘Spirit of the Liturgy,’ so he was giving so much knowledge and information.” During his papacy, there was pressure on Benedict to modernize his ideas and the church by buying new stained glass, but, Dibeneditto said, “He wanted to reform that and go back to the apostles and the ancient values, not be pressured by modern culture that much.”
Looking back on his legacy, she added, it was “ridiculous” that Benedict was dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” for his stances on issues ranging from secularism to sexual ethics.
“They took him out of the seminary, and he had to work as a soldier and so a lot of Jewish people misinterpreted that, but he fought that,” Dibeneditto said. “He was misinterpreted by Jewish people and by people that didn’t know him. He was against all the killing of the Jews and all that. He wasn’t for that. He was such an intellectual giant, and to lose that … he wanted to give so much of himself in service that he couldn’t do that.”
The misunderstanding of Benedict’s early life stems from his spending his teenage years in the Hitler Youth during World War II, something he was taken out of seminary school and forced into. He was briefly held by the Allies as a prisoner of war, but he never became a member of the Nazi party.
Benedict visited his homeland of Germany three times as pope and confronted its dark past when he visited the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in Poland. There he called himself “a son of Germany,” and asked God why he was silent when 1.5 million victims died there during the war.
‘The Lord was sleeping’
Renewed attention on Benedict after his death brought with it renewed discussion of criticism from public health officials and victims’ rights organizations over his handling of sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church. But many say he wasn’t the mastermind behind the scandals and did what he could with his power.
Benedict spoke vaguely about his tribulations while head of the Church in his announcement of his resignation, which he read in Latin. “There were moments of joy and light, but also moments that were not easy,” he told his last general audience, a gathering of more than 150,000 people, on Feb. 11, 2013. “There were moments … when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us, and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping.”