Pope Benedict XVI poses in Alpeggio Pileo near his summer residence in Les Combes, at the Valle d’Aosta in northern Italy, July 14, 2005. Pope Benedict died Dec. 31, 2022, at the age of 95 in his residence at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Reuters/Vatican Pool)
Pope Benedict XVI (1927-2022): ‘A simple, humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord’ is laid to rest
BY MARIA WIERING, OSV NEWS
(OSV News) – “Lord, I love you.”
For many who knew him or studied his works, Pope Benedict XVI’s final words before his death Dec. 31 encapsulated the message of his papacy, and even his life.
“That ‘Jesus, I love you’ — there’s nothing more that sums up his person,” said Father Harrison Ayre, a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia, and a doctoral candidate focusing on Pope Benedict’s theology. “If people can see that and hear that, I think they will understand the man deeply.”
Eight days passed from the time the world received notice that the retired pope’s health was failing and his funeral at St. Peter’s Basilica. During his weekly general audience Dec. 28, Pope Francis asked the faithful for prayers for Pope Benedict, calling him “very ill” and petitioning “the Lord to console him and sustain him in his witness of love for the church until the very end.”
Following that audience, Pope Francis visited Pope Benedict at his residence — a former monastery in the Vatican gardens where he had lived since his 2013 resignation from the Petrine ministry — according to Matteo Bruni, Vatican press office director. Pope Benedict also received the sacrament of anointing of the sick that day.
The Vatican press office provided updates on the 95-year-old retired pope’s condition Dec. 29 and 30, noting that he was declining, but, on Dec. 29, was “absolutely lucid and alert.” Then, on New Year’s Eve at 9:34 a.m. Rome time, Pope Benedict died in his residence.
Pope Francis was reported to have gone immediately to his predecessor’s bedside for prayer. At vespers that evening, Pope Francis recalled Pope Benedict with gratitude: “gratitude to God for having given him to the church and to the world; gratitude to him for all the good he accomplished, and above all, for his witness of faith and prayer, especially in these last years of his recollected life. Only God knows the value and the power of his intercession, of the sacrifices he offered for the good of the church.”
Remembrances of Pope Benedict’s life and analysis of his papacy immediately flooded the media, some glowing, some critical. These painted contradictory portraits of the man who pastored the Catholic Church from 2005 to 2013, and who, as pope, first introduced himself as “a simple, humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.”
Those who knew him well said there was nothing contradictory about the man himself.
Peter Seewald, a German journalist who collaborated with Pope Benedict on several books and authored a biography of the pope, told OSV News that the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was someone “who is what he says and what he preaches,” and predicted he “will be canonized some day.”
In tributes, the retired pope was especially praised for his theological contributions, beginning as a young priest-professor teaching at German universities and adviser at the Second Vatican Council; then 23 years as prefect of the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith; and finally as pope, an office to which he was elected following the death of his longtime collaborator St. John Paul II.
Tracey Rowland, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame Australia and author of “Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI,” published in 2008 by Oxford University Press, told OSV News that she thinks Pope Benedict will one day be a doctor of the church, a special designation for saints who have made outstanding contributions to how the Catholic Church understands the teaching given it by Jesus Christ.
“In a hundred years’ time, (Pope Benedict) will be seen to have laid the foundation for a theological renewal,” she said.
Father Emery de Gaál, chairman and professor of dogmatic theology at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, described Pope Benedict as a scholar who surrendered his whole life to academic work. He authored “no less than 1,600 theological titles, books, articles, essays, book reviews,” Father de Gaál said.
Among those works is the 1968 book “Introduction to Christianity,” which has been widely translated and called a “masterpiece.” Pope Benedict also oversaw the compilation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, under St. John Paul.
“He stands in a singular position as a theologian pope. No pope has written that much and so much in an original and decisive way,” Father de Gaál said.
In death as in life, Pope Benedict was frequently cast as a hero to Catholic “conservatives” and a foil to “progressives.” However, Father de Gaál said the political categories of “liberal,” “progressive,” “conservative” or “restorative” he’s seen applied to Pope Benedict in the wake of his death are inaccurate descriptors. Because of divine revelation, “to speak of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ is really a caricature. … You really have to go into the nitty gritty of theology, of the Catechism, of Scripture to discover that men and women of all faith, be it simple or sophisticated, rise above such categories,” he said.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 until his papal election in 2005, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had the job of defending Church doctrine, a role that earned him the moniker “God’s Rottweiler.”
Because of that public perception, Christopher Ruddy, associate professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said he was pleasantly surprised when he began reading Ratzinger’s writings, including his memoir “Milestones,” in the late 1990s.
“I found that this was the theologian who was speaking to my heart,” he said. “I’m like, ‘This is a very different person than I’ve been led to believe that he is.'”
Ruddy, who teaches a course on Pope Benedict, said then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2000 book “The Spirit of the Liturgy” will likely prove to be his most influential. It presents the liturgy as “not something that we do once a week or once a day or so on, but that our entire lives are meant to be liturgical, and that what we’re most ultimately made for is to worship God, to praise him, and in doing that, to become fully human and fully alive,” Ruddy said.
Even in death, Pope Benedict invited the world into worship and ritual. Dioceses around the world memorialized the retired pope with special Masses. On Jan. 2, his body was brought on a stretcher via a van from his residence to St. Peter’s Basilica, where it lay in state through Jan. 4.
According to the Vatican, some 195,000 people visited his body in those three days. Special accommodations were made for cardinals, bishops and dignitaries, including Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who visited Pope Benedict’s body.
Popes are typically buried in red, and Pope Benedict’s body had been dressed in the red vestments he wore in Sydney at World Youth Day in 2008 — a nod, some observers noted, to his esteem for World Youth Day gatherings. After the viewing ended Jan. 4, his body was placed in a cypress casket along with a text describing his life and contributions known as a “rogito.”
Because Pope Benedict had retired from the papal office, preparations for the Jan. 5 funeral liturgy did not include all elements typical of a pope’s funeral Mass — a fact that some Catholics found confusing or even troubling. Bruni of the Vatican press office emphasized that there were no official protocols in place for the death of a retired pope, and some of the rituals associated with a pope’s death, such as the ringing of St. Peter’s bells or the destruction of his papal ring, had taken place at the time of Pope Benedict’s retirement in 2013.
Ultimately, the funeral rites were expected to be “more than for a cardinal, less than for a pope in office,” Catholic News Service Rome reported.
Pope Benedict had also requested that his funeral Mass be simple, according to the Vatican press office, and only government delegations from Italy and Germany were officially invited. Other dignitaries announced plans to attend in informal capacities. Among them were Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
In a gesture of respect and reverence, Duda kneeled in front of Pope Benedict’s casket as it was carried past him following the funeral.
In the United States, President Joe Biden, a Catholic, paid respects by visiting the Vatican’s apostolic nunciature in Washington, where the public could sign a book of condolences Jan. 3 and 4.
Pope Francis presided at the funeral Mass — a rare situation in church history where a seated pope was present at his predecessor’s funeral. In 1802, Pope Pius VII celebrated the funeral of Pius VI, whose remains had been returned to Rome after he died in exile in France in 1799 after being imprisoned by Napoleon.
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, was the main celebrant at the altar. Concelebrating were about 120 cardinals, 400 bishops and 3,700 priests. An estimated 50,000 people filled St. Peter’s Square for the 90-minute, live streamed Mass. A few banners made it past security checks, with one reading “Santo Subito” (“Sainthood Now”) and another, “Thank you, Pope Benedict” in German.
Pope Francis’ homily focused on Christ’s love and witness as an invitation to holiness, rather than Pope Benedict’s life or accomplishments. However, Pope Francis said that the church desired to follow in Pope Benedict’s steps and commended him to God, concluding the homily with, “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever!”
Following the funeral, Pope Benedict was buried in a triple coffin — the first cypress, the second of zinc and the third of oak — and interred in the same crypt where St. John Paul was initially buried, and prior to him, St. John XXIII. The crypt opened to visitors Jan. 8.
On Dec. 31, as many admirers reflected on his writings, Pope Benedict left the faithful with another final word: his own reflection in a spiritual testament written in 2006 but released for the first time 10 hours after his death. In the short document — in English, about 700 words — he asked for forgiveness from those he wronged, honored his parents and siblings, and urged Christians to “stand firm in the faith” and resist confusion, especially where science appears to contradict faith.
“If at this late hour of my life I look back over the decades I have been living, I first see how many reasons I have to give thanks,” he wrote at age 79. “First of all, I thank God himself, the giver of every good gift, who gave me life and guided me through various moments of confusion; always picking me up whenever I began to slip and always giving me the light of his countenance again. In retrospect, I see and understand that even the dark and tiring stretches of this path were for my salvation and that it was in them that he guided me well.”
George Weigel, author and St. John Paul biographer, told OSV News that Pope Benedict was “one of the most consequential Christian figures of modern times,” and that his legacy will be a part of the universal Church for generations to come.
“There are not many authors today who can be sure that their books will be read several hundred years from now,” Weigel said. “He is one of them.”
Maria Wiering is Senior Writer for OSV News. OSV News staff and Catholic News Service Rome contributed to this report.