1st official act as pope was letter to Rome Jewish community

Former pope Benedict XVI, the first pontiff to resign in 600 years, dies at 95

Catholic leader who spectacularly stepped down in 2013, dies at Vatican; former member of Hitler Youth decried horrors of Holocaust but pushed for beatification of Pope Pius XII

File: In this May 28, 2006 photo, then-pope Benedict XVI walks through the gate of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. (AP Photo/Diether Endlicher, File)
File: In this May 28, 2006 photo, then-pope Benedict XVI walks through the gate of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. (AP Photo/Diether Endlicher, File)

Former pope Benedict XVI, who in 2013 became the first pontiff to resign as head of the Catholic Church since the Middle Ages, died on Saturday aged 95, the Vatican announced.

“With sorrow I inform you that the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, passed away today at 9:34 in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.

The German pope emeritus had been living a quiet life in a former convent inside the Vatican grounds since his shock decision to step down in February 2013.

His health had been declining for a long time, but the Vatican revealed on Wednesday that his situation had worsened, while his successor Pope Francis called for Catholics worldwide to pray for him.

His death brings to an end an unprecedented situation in which two “men in white” — Benedict and Francis — had co-existed within the walls of the tiny city-state.

While there is no rulebook for former popes, Benedict’s funeral is expected to be at the Vatican, presided over by Francis.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, third from left, meets with the winners of the 2022 Ratzinger Prize, Joseph Halevi Horowitz Weiler, left, and father Michel Fedou, partially hidden at right, at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery inside the Vatican where Benedict XVI lives, in this photo taken December 1, 2022. (Fondazione Vaticana J.Ratzinger via AP)

In 2005, the body of John Paul II, the last pope to die, lay in state before a funeral mass in St. Peter’s Square attended by one million people, including heads of state.

Benedict, who was the first pontiff to resign in 600 years, had become increasingly frail in recent years as he dedicated his post-papacy life to prayer and meditation.

Benedict was born in Germany in 1927 as Joseph Ratzinger, and he joined the Hitler Youth as a 14-year-old.

In 2006, Benedict visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and decried the genocide.

“To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible, and particularly difficult for a Christian, for a pope from Germany,” he told survivors and religious leaders, according to The Guardian.

“In a place like this, words fail. There is only a stupefied silence and a cry to God,” he said.

In 2009, he visited Israel and attended a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

In this file photo taken on May 11, 2009, then-pope Benedict XVI gestures as he prepares to sit with then-chief Tel Aviv Rabbi, Holocaust survivor Yisrael Meir Lau (L), then-Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (2L), then-president Shimon Peres (2R) and Avner Shalev, the then-director of Yad Vashem, during a ceremony at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Like his predecessor John Paul, Benedict made reaching out to Jews a hallmark of his papacy.

His first official act as pope was a letter to Rome’s Jewish community and he became the second pope in history, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue.

In his 2011 book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Benedict made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Christ, explaining biblically and theologically why there was no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death.

“It’s very clear Benedict is a true friend of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the interreligious relations office for the American Jewish Committee, at the time of Benedict’s retirement.

Yet Benedict also offended some Jews who were incensed at his constant defense of and promotion toward sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope accused by some of having failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust.

File: Pope Pius XII appears behind microphones during a radio broadcast from the Vatican in November 1947. (AP Photo/Luigi Felici)

And they harshly criticized Benedict when he removed the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop Richard Williamson who had denied the Holocaust.

The former pope was also criticized for a 2018 text that was seen as critical of the Jewish faith.

In a controversial essay published in Communio, an international theological quarterly he helped found in 1972, Benedict denied that the Catholic Church had ever embraced “supersessionism,” the belief that Christianity was to replace Judaism, saying instead it came to supplant just some of its rituals.

At the same time, he also argued the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, the foundation text of Judaism, is the only correct one.

His views were criticized as providing a platform for antisemitism, with Rabbi Walter Homolka, executive director of the School of Jewish Theology at Potsdam University in Germany saying, “Whoever describes the role of Judaism like this is building the foundation for a new anti-Semitism on a Christian basis,” USA Today reported at the time.

In this file photo taken on December 1, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI leads the Vesper prayer with members of Rome’s universities at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (Andreas Solaro/AFP)

Sex abuse scandal

Benedict had almost entirely withdrawn from public view, his health reported to be shaky and the few photographs that emerged of him exposing his frailty.

Back in 2013, he had cited his declining physical and mental health in his decision to become the first pope since 1415 to give up the job as head of the worldwide Catholic church.

Benedict was a brilliant theologian, but his papacy was beset by Vatican in-fighting and a scandal over clerical sexual abuse of children that rocked the Catholic Church the world over, in which he was criticized for a lack of leadership.

The abuse scandal overshadowed his final months after a damning report for the German church in January 2022 accused him of personally failing to stop four predatory priests in the 1980s while archbishop of Munich.

He denied wrongdoing and the Vatican strongly defended his record in being the first pope to apologize for the scandals, who expressed his own “deep remorse” and met with victims.

‘God’s Rottweiler’

Born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, in Bavaria, Benedict was 78 when he succeeded the long-reigning and popular John Paul II in April 2005, the first German pope of the modern era.

He later said his election felt “like the guillotine.”

Unlike his successor Pope Francis, a Jesuit who delights in being among his flock, Benedict was a conservative intellectual dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” in a previous post as chief doctrinal enforcer.

Pope Francis, left, embraces Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, at the Vatican, June 28, 2017. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

His papacy was dogged by controversy, from comments that angered the Muslim world to a money-laundering scandal at the Vatican bank and a personal humiliation when, in 2012, his butler leaked secret papers to the media.

He riled Muslims with a speech in September 2006 — five years after the September 11 attacks in the United States — in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman,” particularly his command to spread the faith “by the sword.”

A subsequent comment after the massacre of Christians in Egypt led the Al Azhar center in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Muslim learning, to suspend ties with the Vatican, which were only restored under Francis.

Despite saying he would live “hidden from the world” after his resignation, Benedict repeatedly intervened on key issues facing the Church through books, interviews and articles.

In January 2020, he expressed his opposition to allowing priests to marry. A year earlier, he blamed clerical abuse scandals on the 1960s sexual revolution and a collapse in faith in the West.

In an interview in March 2021, he said “there is only one pope,” but acknowledged “fanatical” supporters who refused to accept his resignation.

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