Only God knows what Benedict sacrificed

Presidential Blog by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia

The passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on Dec. 31, 2022 marks a sad close to a tumultuous year, and the end to his life-long commitment to the Catholic Church.

For many he will be remembered as the only pope in over 600 years to retire from office but as most know, his legacy is much more than this. Benedict was a true scholar, protector of the faith in form and content, and an advocate for a compelling faith life that confronted rather than glossed over the complexities of our times.

As is so often the case, the former pope was an introvert — often called the Reluctant Pope — who was thrust into arguably the most public office on the planet, and he conducted his business with the seriousness of a German scholar and theologian, who had the heart of a loving parish priest.

Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was ordained a priest (together with his brother Georg) in 1951, which led him both to chaplaincy and to academic studies. Indeed, the former pope was known as an intellectual — Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller rightly called him “one of the finest Christian minds of modern times” — and spent many years in academia, as a professor at the University of Bonn and Munich among others, and eventually as Vice President of the University of Regensburg.

Perhaps his greatest impact before the papacy itself however, was through the many years of specific service to the Church itself, as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, as Cardinal and in critical Vatican roles, none, arguably, as influential as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which he led for 25 years. There he presided over some of the most controversial issues the Church has ever had to face, from the sex abuse crisis to the Church’s position on homosexuality and the ordination of women. Described as a liberal in his early years, Benedict came to be known as a conservative leader incensed at what he saw as the “aggressive secularization” of our times.

Perhaps because of his background, Benedict XVI was understandably a supporter of Catholic education in general, and of Catholic higher education in particular. In April 2008, in an address at the Catholic University of America, he began his talk quoting the words of Isaiah, repeated by St. Paul, “How beautiful are the footsteps of those who bring good news,” as the opening to his message on “the nature and identity of Catholic education today.” As Benedict made clear, “God’s revelation offers every generation the opportunity to discover the ultimate truth about its own life goal and history. The task is never easy; it involves the entire Christian community and motivates each generation of Christian educators to ensure that the power of God’s truth permeates every dimension of the institutions they serve.”

This was certainly true of the institution he served and loved — the Church writ large — and he understood that he was its true champion. It was his sense that he did not have the physical and intellectual strength left to continue to fight for this cause at the highest level that led to his decision to resign from office in February 2013. It was one of many firsts: the first German in 1,000 years to be pope; the oldest man to become pope (he was 78); the first pope to meet with victims of sexual abuse in the Church; the first to canonize a First Nations’ saint for North America (Kateri Tekakwitha); and of course, the first to retire since Pope Gregory XII in 1415. And now, for the first time in the modern age, a living Pope will preside over the funeral of a retired Pope.

Pope Francis will doubtless expand on the words he issued in St. Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Eve: “We feel in our hearts so much gratitude: gratitude to God for having given him to the Church and to the world; only God knows the value and strength of his intercession, of his sacrifices offered for the good of the Church.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict was known by many names — the Reluctant Pope, God’s Rottweiler, the Pope of aesthetics — but the title that perhaps best fits him was coined by historian Anthony Grafton: “the greatest scholar to rule the Church since Innocent III.”

Rest in Peace, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, your legacy will be gratefully remembered.


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