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Retired Pope Benedict XVI dies at 95

Pope Benedict XVI greets a crowd in Venice's St. Mark's Square in 2011.
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Pope Benedict XVI greets a crowd in Venice's St. Mark's Square in 2011.

Updated December 31, 2022 at 1:45 PM ET

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI, the first pontiff to step down since the 15th century, died on Saturday in Vatican City at age 95.

For several days, he had experienced declining health due to his advanced age, the Vatican press office said, with Pope Francis publicly sharing news of Benedict's worsening condition earlier this week.

Pope Francis will preside over Benedict's funeral on Thursday at St. Peter's Square, the Vatican said.

Born April 16, 1927, in Germany's Bavaria, Joseph Ratzinger was a theologian by training. Following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, Ratzinger was elected his successor after serving for a quarter of a century as the Vatican's top enforcer of orthodoxy. He was the first German pope since the 11th century.

German priest Joseph Ratzinger (center) prays during an open-air Mass in the summer of 1952 near Ruhpolding in the German state of Bavaria.
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German priest Joseph Ratzinger (center) prays during an open-air Mass in the summer of 1952 near Ruhpolding in the German state of Bavaria.

For his nearly eight years as pope, Benedict is remembered as one of the most conservative pontiffs in recent memory and a church leader who, by choosing to retire, charted a new course for the papacy.

On Feb. 11, 2013, Benedict XVI shocked the world by announcing: "After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry."

Gerard O'Connell, Vatican correspondent for the Jesuit magazine America, said it was after a fall during his visit to Mexico in 2012 that Benedict understood he could no longer fulfill his papal duties.

"Here is a man who in prayer discerned his own limits and said, 'I can go so far, I do not have the physical strength to go further, and therefore I resign,' as he explains in that interview book," O'Connell said, referring to Last Testament: In His Own Words. "He had a sense of peace that he had made the right decision."

But as pope, many critics believed he had made several bad decisions.

Crises of a papacy

Benedict's efforts to revive Christianity in secularized Europe — which he said was threatened by a "dictatorship of relativism" — were overshadowed by the many crises of his papacy.

He offended Jews when he lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist Holocaust-denying bishop; he was severely reprimanded by European politicians with his remarks that condoms help spread AIDS; Vatican power struggles showed he had little control over the church bureaucracy; and his papacy was haunted by clerical sex abuse scandals.

Benedict delivers a speech to members of the American Jewish Congress in 2009 at the Vatican. The pope said it was "intolerable" to deny the Holocaust as he confronted controversy over a bishop who cast doubt on the Nazis' mass killing of Jews.
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Benedict delivers a speech to members of the American Jewish Congress in 2009 at the Vatican. The pope said it was "intolerable" to deny the Holocaust as he confronted controversy over a bishop who cast doubt on the Nazis' mass killing of Jews.

Benedict did not favor interfaith encounters with Muslims, and his conviction that Islam could not be put on an equal footing with Catholicism led to one of the worst crises of his papacy. In a September 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, Benedict quoted a remark made by a 14th-century emperor deriding Islam: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The quote triggered Muslim fury worldwide. Tensions began to ease a few months later after Benedict visited Istanbul's Blue Mosque and prayed silently next to a Muslim cleric.

Drafted into Hitler's military

Ratzinger was born in the period between the world wars in the Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn, the youngest of three children.

Ratzinger was a German air force assistant in 1943.
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AFP via Getty Images
Ratzinger was a German air force assistant in 1943.

He was 6 when Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. His parents — a police officer and a hotel cook — were firm Catholics who opposed the Nazi regime, according to historian Michael Frassetto.

Ratzinger entered a seminary when he was 12. At the height of World War II, when he was in his teens, he joined the Hitler Youth, which was mandatory. In 1943, he was drafted into the military and served briefly in an anti-aircraft battalion.

Throughout his lifetime, he rarely spoke publicly about his experiences under Nazism or of the Catholic Church's relations with the Third Reich.

Catholic primacy

Ratzinger was ordained a priest in 1951 and began his career teaching theology. In 1962, he was appointed theological adviser to the Second Vatican Council, whose reforms ushered the Catholic Church into the 20th century.

But by the end of the 1960s, Ratzinger believed the spirit of Vatican II had been betrayed.

With the towers of Munich's cathedral in the background, Cardinal Ratzinger bids farewell to Bavarian believers in 1982. Ratzinger left Germany to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.
Dieter Endlicher / AP
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With the towers of Munich's cathedral in the background, Cardinal Ratzinger bids farewell to Bavarian believers in 1982. Ratzinger left Germany to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.

Pope Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Munich in 1977.

Four years later, Pope John Paul II summoned him to Rome to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the Vatican's theological watchdog, once known as the Roman Inquisition. He held the post for 24 years. During that time, one of his most controversial documents was "Dominus Jesus," which emphasized the primacy of the Catholic Church and branded non-Christian religions as "gravely deficient" — potentially undermining Vatican II achievements toward dialogue between Catholicism and other denominations and religions.

As Vatican doctrinal watchdog, Ratzinger became a polarizing figure: He disciplined dissident theologians, and he upheld church opposition to female priests and married priests as well as same-sex marriage. In a 1986 document, he called homosexuality an "objective disorder and an intrinsic moral evil."

As pope, Benedict continued to hold the line against divorce, birth control, abortion and stem-cell research.

But Benedict backed down on occasion. In 2008, his reinstatement of the traditional Latin Mass, with its Good Friday prayer calling for the conversion of Jews, drew strong criticism from Jewish leaders, forcing the Vatican to change the prayer's wording.

A few months later, Jewish-Catholic relations were again jeopardized after Benedict lifted the excommunication of a renegade bishop, Richard Williamson, who had publicly cast doubt about the Holocaust. Following worldwide outrage, Benedict wrote a letter to his bishops acknowledging it was an "unforeseen mishap." He said he did not have prior knowledge that Williamson was a Holocaust denier despite the bishop's remarks circulating widely online. The pope added that he learned to be more attentive to the internet for information.

Benedict addresses the faithful for the last time upon arrival in Castel Gandolfo in 2013.
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Benedict addresses the faithful for the last time upon arrival in Castel Gandolfo in 2013.

Nevertheless, Benedict again triggered widespread anger when he announced he was putting the World War II-era pope on the track to sainthood for what Benedict called his "heroic virtues." Pope Pius XII is widely viewed as not having spoken out forcefully as the Holocaust was being carried out. The sainthood process is still underway.

Legacy of resigning

Church historian Massimo Faggioli said he believes that by approaching the world from a purely intellectual and theological perspective, Benedict's papacy was ultimately a failure. "Because to be pope you are not the theologian-in-chief, you are the pastor-in-chief. That's the magic of the papal office," Faggioli said.

Yet the historian said the real legacy of Benedict's papacy was how he ended it. "Benedict XVI's decision to resign was a very radical interpretation of Vatican II," Faggioli said. "Going beyond the letter of Vatican II, that was revolutionary."

O'Connell of America magazine said that in Benedict's final remarks to the cardinals before leaving the Vatican, he said his successor was among them. "He promised that he would give loyalty and obedience to his successor, and he respected that commitment in a total, absolute way," the correspondent said.

After Pope Francis was elected in March 2013, Benedict lived quietly in a residence on Vatican grounds.

Despite pressure from many church conservatives to intervene against the reforms of his successor, the pope emeritus rarely appeared in public or commented on his successor.

But in an authorized biography published in May in Germany, Benedict rejected charges by some Vatican watchers that he was undermining the Francis papacy from behind the scenes. He was quoted as saying he had fallen victim to a "malignant distortion of reality."

In 2022, a German Catholic Church report faulted Benedict's handling of four sex abuse cases in Munich four decades earlier. The pope emeritus acknowledged abuses and errors had taken place when he was Munich archbishop. But he denied allegations of wrongdoing.

The response, many Vatican watchers say, would taint his legacy as a person, a theologian and as head of the Catholic Church — particularly because he expressed no empathy for the victims.

World leaders remember Benedict

World leaders expressed sadness over Benedict's death, recalling his work to promote peace.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said Benedict sent a "strong signal" through his resignation, while President Biden — America's second Catholic president ever — said he joins Catholics around the world in mourning Benedict's death. In a Saturday statement, Biden urged people to remember Benedict's call for global solidarity.

"May his focus on the ministry of charity continue to be an inspiration to us all," he said.

Pope Francis thanked Benedict's "testimony of faith and prayer, especially in these final years of retired life" in a New Year's Eve vigil. He added that only God knew "of his sacrifices offered for the good of the church."

Despite a history of division between the Russian Orthodox Church and Catholic Church, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has championed orthodoxy, called Benedict a "defender of traditional Christian values."

Ashley Ahn contributed reporting.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.