On the last day of 2022, Benedict XVI, in office from April 2005 until February 2013 when he retired to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican (just a few hundred meters from St. Peter's Basilica), left this land to join the House of the Father at the venerable age of 95. He was the oldest person who had been pope at his death. However, because he had renounced his office at the age of 85, it is Leo XIII who remains the oldest pope to die in office at the age of 93.
In the Catholic Church, and especially in the Vatican, a ceremony of "Te Deum", or thanksgiving, is celebrated on December 31 of each year to thank God for all the graces and blessings received during the past year. Well, we can certainly thank Him for having given us such an exceptional pope, both intellectually and spiritually, in the person of Benedict XVI. Born Joseph Ratzinger, he truly dedicated his whole life to the service of God, to make Him known and loved, with kindness and humility in a clear and decisive way.
Ordained a priest on June 29, 1951 at the same time as his brother Georg (who was three years older), Joseph Ratzinger became a brilliant professor of theology and a specialist on Saints Augustine and Bonaventure. He distinguished himself as an advisor to the Second Vatican Council. On March 24, 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Munich and Freising in Germany, and made him a cardinal three months later. He took as his bishop's motto the quotation from the 3rd Epistle of St. John: cooperatores veritatis (cooperators of truth), which providentially described the role he would have in the Church later.
Karol Wojtyla (who became Pope John Paul II) befriended Joseph Ratzinger when both participated in the Second Vatican Council, and appreciating his high theological competence, called him to Rome in 1981 to become Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger's task was to enforce the deposit of faith against attacks from different circles, sometimes even from heretical and modernist theologians.
Ratzinger carried out this difficult but essential task brilliantly until the death of John Paul II, who had asked him to stay until the end of his papacy. Cardinal Ratzinger was literally John Paul II's right-hand man, meeting with him several times a week. It is said that John Paul II never made any important decisions without consulting him.
When John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger thought he could finally return to his native Bavaria to continue his theological work as he had passed the age of 75 when bishops generally retire. The good Lord had another plan. He would succeed his great friend as Bishop of Rome and Pope! As Dean of the College of Cardinals, it was Joseph Ratzinger who was called to preside at the funeral Mass of the Polish Pope, and we all remember the touching words of Cardinal Ratzinger during his homily for the occasion:
"None of us can ever forget how, in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi. We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen." And now, since December 31, 2022, it is Benedict XVI, who has now joined his great friend John Paul II, who blesses us from Heaven."
The conclave to elect the new pope opened on April 19, 2005 and lasted less than 24 hours, one of the shortest conclaves in history. As a possible successor to a giant of the faith, like John Paul II, all cardinals looked to another giant of the faith and intimate collaborator of John Paul II for 23 years – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It was his homily at the funeral, delivered 11 days earlier, that convinced them. Thus, at the age of 78, Joseph Ratzinger became the 265th pope, and thus presented himself to the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square:
"Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord. The fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with insufficient instruments comforts me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers. In the joy of the Risen Lord, confident of his unfailing help, let us move forward. The Lord will help us, and Mary, His Most Holy Mother, will be on our side. Thank you."
He took the name of Benedict XVI, in honor of Pope Benedict XV, who guided the Church during a difficult period due to the First World War, but also, he said, "in honor of Saint Benedict of Nursia, Patriarch of Western Monasticism, co-patron of Europe, whose life evokes the Christian roots of Europe. He is deeply venerated, also in Germany and particularly in Bavaria, my birthplace; he is a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization. We are familiar with the recommendation that this Father of western monasticism left to his monks in his Rule: 'Prefer nothing to the love of Christ'. At the beginning of my service as Successor of Peter, I ask St. Benedict to help us keep Christ firmly at the heart of our lives. May Christ always have pride of place in our thoughts and in all our activities!"
At the inaugural Mass of his pontificate, Benedict XVI declared: "My real programme of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by Him, so that He himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history.
"'Feed my sheep', said Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, he says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God's truth, of God's word, the nourishment of His presence, which He gives us in the Blessed Sacrament. My dear friends – at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more – in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Let us pray for one another, that the Lord will carry us and that we will learn to carry one another."
One of Benedict XVI's priorities was to implement the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council of which he had been a leading participant, and to demonstrate that the Council was not a break with the tradition of the Church, but a continuity.
Some will remember from Benedict XVI only his renunciation of the pontificate in 2013 for health reasons since it was the first resignation of a pope since 1415. But one must not forget his 66 books on theology (including three on the life of Jesus, written between 2007 and 2012), his three encyclicals: On Charity — Deus Caritas Est, God is Love, Hope — Spe Salvi, and the Social Doctrine of the Church — Caritas in Veritate, plus an encyclical on Faith — Lumen Fidei, which was completed by Pope Francis.
One can add the Years of Dedication to St. Paul (2009), to the Curé d'Ars (2010), to the Faith (2012), and hundreds of homilies and speeches all worthy of study and reflection and which can be summed up in the last four words that Benedict XVI pronounced just before he died: "Jesus, I love you". That was his program, to love Jesus and that we would love Him.
In his letter to all the bishops of the world dated March 10, 2009, Benedict XVI wrote:
"In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses "to the end" (cf. Jn 13:1) – in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects."
During the ten years that followed this resignation, Benedict XVI prayed for the Church and did not abandon her. He was a pillar, a shield and protector, like Moses who prayed with raised arms for Israel to triumph over its enemies and defeat the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16).
One would have thought that after retiring for almost ten years from public life, people would have forgotten Benedict XVI. Of course not! As early as Monday morning, January 2, 2023, while he was lying in state in St. Peter's Basilica, thousands were already waiting in line in St. Peter's Square to pay tribute to the late pontiff. Pope Francis did not fail to emphasize the greatness of Benedict XVI and declared on the day of his passing:
"At this moment, my thought naturally goes to dear Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who left us this morning. We are moved as we recall him as such a noble person, so kind. And we feel such gratitude in our hearts: 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."
In his homily for the funeral Mass on January 5, 2023, Francis compared Benedict XVI to the Good Shepherd: "Feeding [one's sheep] means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God's truth, of God's word, the nourishment of his presence." Pope Francis ended his homily with these words: "Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear His voice, now and forever!"
Yes, we believe that the joy of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is now perfect. This brings to mind an episode in the life of St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of all time. On December 6, 1273, at age 49, St. Thomas Aquinas had a mystical vision that made writing seem unimportant to him. At Mass, he reportedly heard a voice coming from the crucifix that said, "Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?" St. Thomas Aquinas replied, "None other than thyself, Lord!"
Jesus certainly addressed these same words to Benedict XVI: "You have written well of me", and the reward was certainly to welcome him into Heaven for eternity, for endless bliss.
Thank you, Lord, for having given us such a good, great and humble pope, and we also thank Joseph Ratzinger for saying yes to God's plan throughout his life; we thank him for having "cooperated with the truth."