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Joseph Ratzinger, the conservative cardinal chosen to succeed John Paul II, leaves an indelible legacy in a church whose problems he struggled to solve before abdicating in 2013

More than anything else, Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered for the way he left the papacy. Not even the sexual abuse and corruption scandals that dogged his eight-year reign can top the fact that the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the first pope in more than 600 years to abdicate the throne of St. Peter. His radical decision in 2013 to leave the Vatican on his own two feet, albeit in brown loafers rather than his ruby red papal slippers, established an alternative exit strategy to dying on the job for all future pontiffs.

The first pope in the age of social media, the former academic and theologian even had a twitter handle: @Pontifex. “Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives,” was the final tweet posted in his name on Feb. 28, 2013.

Then, after promising obedience to the College of Cardinals, the Pope Emeritus climbed into a helicopter and was flown to Castel Gandolfo near Rome, where he spent the first two months of his retirement before moving into the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, a refurbished convent in the gardens of Vatican City with a view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Living a private life of prayer and reflection, he played no part in the management of the church he had led for eight years.

A few days after Christmas, 2022, his successor, Pope Francis, issued a statement saying the Pope Emeritus, who had been suffering from respiratory issues and difficulty in speaking, was very ill, and asked the faithful to “pray a special prayer” for him. Pope Benedict XVI, who was 95, died on Saturday.

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Benedict delivers one of his Easter blessings at St. Peter's Basilica.Pool

One of the oldest cardinals ever to become pope, Joseph Ratzinger was 78 when he appeared with his wispy white hair on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome on April 19, 2005, to reveal himself as the 265th head of the Roman Catholic Church. The first German pope in almost 1,000 years, Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pontiff by an international conclave of cardinals a little more than two weeks after the death of the deeply loved Pope John Paul II.

Describing himself as “a simple, humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord,” Cardinal Ratzinger chose the name Benedict from the Latin for “the blessed.” He wanted to honour the memory of Benedict XV, a peacemaker during the First World War. “In his footsteps I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples,” Pope Benedict XVI explained after his election. He also wanted to evoke the life of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the Benedictine monasteries and the author of an influential work on monastic life, “to help us all to hold firm to the centrality of Christ in our Christian life. May Christ always take first place in our thoughts and actions.”

Despite his eloquent words, many insiders had long since dubbed the man with blazing hooded eyes and thin lips as the “German Shepherd” or the “Panzer Cardinal” for his mandatory conscription into the Hitler Youth and his service in an anti-aircraft unit late in the Second World War. Others called him “God’s Rottweiler” or the “Grand Inquisitor” for the stern disciplinary role he had played since 1981 as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

As his predecessor’s enforcer, Cardinal Ratzinger had crushed dissent and come down hard on priests and bishops who wanted to rewrite the scriptures in gender-inclusive language or embrace liberation theology, a radical movement fostered in South America that argued the church should ally itself with the working class to push for social justice.

Deeply spiritual and a revered theological scholar, the German pope had been a liberal thinker in his youth. As he aged, though, he became ultraconservative. He was against ordaining women priests, loosening bans against artificial contraception and abortion, relaxing celibacy rules, and recognizing the human rights of LGBTQ people. .

As a cardinal, he brought the process of investigating allegations of sexual abuse and disciplining perpetrators under his own authority, rather than leaving it to individual dioceses. That left him personally vulnerable when sexual-abuse scandals erupted in the United States, Ireland, Germany and Australia, along with the long-suppressed horrors many Indigenous Canadian children suffered at residential schools. He did apologize early in 2022, for any “grievous faults” in the way sexual-abuse cases were handled in his diocese when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, but denied any personal wrongdoing.

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The future pope sprinkles holy water on the coffin of John Paul II during 2005's funeral procession at St. Peter's Square.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As pope, he showed little aptitude for managing the global Vatican bureaucracy in an administration that was plagued by allegations of corruption, nepotism and cronyism at the highest levels. The year before Pope Benedict XVI retired, his butler was convicted of stealing and then leaking documents to a journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose blistering book His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI exposed a waterfall of complaints gushing from cardinals down to parishioners, many of whom felt that the Curia, the governing body within the Catholic Church, was more interested in amassing and retaining power than responding to the needs of the faithful. Incompetence and disorganization at the Vatican Bank also added to Pope Benedict’s burdens.

Any pontiff who succeeded John Paul II would have found him a hard act to follow, but many conservative elements had backed Cardinal Ratzinger as the continuity candidate – the person most likely to follow the course set by his predecessor. Neither man was Italian; both were of a comparable age, had lived under totalitarian regimes and had similar views about the church and its rituals and doctrines.

But Pope John Paul II, the former Karol Jozef Wojtyla, was a man of the people and a folk hero. A former actor and a parish priest who had survived the German and the Russian occupations of Poland, he had helped bring about the collapse of communism in his country.

Pope Benedict was an interpreter rather than an innovator. He lacked his predecessor’s public charisma, although in person he was said to be warm, a brilliant linguist and conversationalist, a talented pianist and a man of undoubted humility and gentleness who loved to quote poetry.

His devout faith, his love of ritual and costume, and his rigid doctrinal position were all on view when, as cardinal, he presided over the funeral mass for Pope John Paul II, delivering an eloquent and passionate homily that moved many to tears. “None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life,” he said, “the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing.”

Later, many felt that Pope Benedict XVI’s own decision to retire, rather than to die on the job, was influenced by his predecessor’s fragility and his own fear that he didn’t have the stamina to deal with the burgeoning problems of the church.

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At top, a picture of Benedict stands at the church in Marktl, Germany, where the future pope was born at the house shown below.KERSTIN JOENSSON/AFP via Getty Images

Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, the third child and youngest son of policeman Joseph Ratzinger Sr., and Maria Peintner, a hotel cook, was born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl, Bavaria, a primarily Catholic area of southeastern Germany.

He got his vocation early, relating in his memoir, Milestones, that as a boy of five, he was so impressed by the scarlet robes worn by the visiting cardinal of Munich that he decided then and there that he too wanted to become a prince of the Church.

He went to the local elementary school, which was renamed in his honour in 2009. The family moved several times as his father was relocated from one post to another, finally settling in Traunstein when Joseph was 10. That’s where Joseph and his older brother Georg entered Saint Michael Seminary.

On his 14th birthday in 1941, he was conscripted into the Hitler Youth, although he was later given an exemption because of his religious studies. Two years later, he was drafted into an anti-aircraft corps as a child soldier and later trained in the infantry and posted to Hungary.

When the Allies marched into Germany in early 1945, Joseph deserted the ramshackle remains of the army and was arrested and briefly incarcerated as a prisoner of war. After his release, he re-entered the seminary and then studied at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. Both Ratzinger boys were ordained on June 29, 1951.

As a priest, Father Ratzinger was always much more of an academic than a pastor. He wrote a dissertation on St. Augustine , was appointed a professor of Freising College in 1958, the University of Bonn the next year and the University of Muenster in 1963.

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Worshippers carry torches at a procession through St. Peter's Square in 1962, the year of the eventful Vatican II conference.Girolamo Di Majo/The Associated Press

His academic and theological prowess attracted the attention of the archbishop of Cologne, Joseph Frings, who asked Father Ratzinger to serve as his expert assistant in Rome at the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II, which was convened by Pope John XXIII in October, 1962, was an extraordinary gathering of more than 2,500 theologians, priests, bishops and cardinals determined to modernize the way the Catholic Church ministered to the faithful and practised its religion.

In the wake of Vatican II, Father Ratzinger was appointed to a chair in dogmatic theology at the University of Tuebingen. Two years later, he published Introduction to Christianity, in which he played down the absolute authority of the papacy and argued that the pope should listen to a range of voices before making a decision.

Inclusive theological theory gave way to doctrinaire practice, however, after he witnessed radical student demonstrations and insurrections in many parts of Europe in 1967 and 1968. He was appalled by the way students at Tuebingen, his own university, were espousing Marxist ideology, professing themselves to be agnostics, if not atheists, and defying authority. Deeply offended, he sought solace in Catholic orthodoxy and a strict adherence to the hierarchical structure of the church.

In 1977, a little more than a decade after Vatican II, Pope Paul VI appointed Father Ratzinger archbishop of Munich and Freising. Three months later, he was made a cardinal. It had taken half a century, but the policeman’s son had finally achieved his childhood desire to dress himself in the scarlet robes and broad brimmed hat he had so admired.

Four years later, on Nov. 25, 1981, John Paul II made him prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office charged with preserving Catholic doctrine and meting out discipline for clergy who violate canon law. (This is the same institution that was responsible for the Inquisition.)

For the next two decades, Cardinal Ratzinger was one of Pope John Paul II’s most trusted and feared advisers. Together they turned away from Vatican II’s proposals for a more grassroots and democratic church and pushed instead for centralized control and a crushing of doctrinal opposition. He was promoted within the College of Cardinals and made the college’s vice-dean in 1998 and dean in 2002.

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A statue of St. Longinus looks out at St. Peter's Basilica.Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

In the decade before he was elected pope, Cardinal Ratzinger had asked several times for permission to retire to his home in Bavaria. He had suffered a stroke in 1991 that temporarily affected his eyesight, and would suffer another one in 2005.

Despite his physical frailty, Pope Benedict XVI travelled to several countries including Turkey, where he met with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and discussed ways to improve relations between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. He also visited the United States, where he denounced sexual abuse by priests and met privately with some victims.

But that did not silence allegations of long-standing abuse and cover-ups by the church during the pope’s long tenure as prefect. As the church’s disciplinarian and the author of a 2001 Vatican circular on the confidentiality of internal investigations, he was named in a civil lawsuit related to the sexual abuse of three Texas boys in the mid-1990s, but obtained diplomatic immunity after he became Pope.

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The Pope Emeritus greets Pope Francis II in 2020.VATICAN MEDIA/AFP via Getty Images

After his retirement, his continuing presence within the Vatican, akin to a dowager countess establishing herself in a cottage on a landed estate, was potentially troublesome for his successor, Pope Francis. But the Pope Emeritus was true to his promise not to interfere in papal affairs, and lived a life of prayer and reflection.

Again defying tradition, his death is an occasion for private mourning and public reflection rather than a frenzied summoning of cardinals from around the world to choose a new pontiff.

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In photos: Catholics mourn pope emeritus
  • Faithful gather to mourn the death of former Pope Benedict, in Altoetting, Germany, December 31, 2022.STRINGER/Reuters

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