Our farewell to Pope Benedict XVI

He pointed to universal communion, where “God is all in all”

Photo by Living City Magazine

7 min read

I grew up in Germany, in the Catholic Church of the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was already a very important figure—but not always appreciated and loved by young people longing for change.

Only later, when I got to know a bit more of his prophetic vision of the Church and his thorough, unmatched theological reflections, I began to understand his role and gift for the Catholic Church.

Benedict passed away December 31 as he had served the Church: in silence and faithfulness.

When Pope John Paul II passed away, the name Joseph Ratzinger was on the list of possible new popes, but many did not think he would actually be elected. He seemed too shy, not a man of the masses like his predecessor, more of a scholar than a pastor of the worldwide Church.

Yet, he was elected and he assumed the papacy with his distinct talent: to develop a theology for our times, far beyond hot topics like mandatory celibacy for priests or the role of women in the Church.

Theological groundwork

His first encyclical was Deus Caritas Est (2005)—a hymn to the essence of God who is love. Two more followed, Saved by Hope (2007) and Charity in Truth (2009), in which he developed the Church’ social teaching as a pillar for the modern Church.

His first trip as pope led him to his native country, to World Youth Day 2005 in Germany. And the young people celebrated him; they camped overnight in the Marienfeld area, where the temperatures dropped to 33 degrees Fahrenheit (1ºC).

In his homily, he encouraged the participants to live out their faith together with others.

“Books alone are not enough. Form communities based on faith! In recent decades, movements and communities have come to birth in which the power of the Gospel is keenly felt.

“Seek communion in faith, like fellow travelers who continue together to follow the path of the great pilgrimage that the Magi from the East first pointed out to us.

“The spontaneity of new communities is important, but it is also important to preserve communion with the pope and with the bishops.”

Throughout his papacy of close to 8 years, he never doubted the significance of Vatican II, of which he was one of the leading theologians. Yet he felt the need to correct misinterpretations and to develop its teachings further.

As Cardinal Ratzinger—the “watchdog”—he took a stand against relativism. “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

Italian theologian Piero Coda wrote in the magazine Città Nuova: “Great popes have led the Catholic Church in this last period of its long history: great in spiritual stature and life witness, in wisdom and culture, in social discernment and prophecy…

“Among them in his own right is Joseph Ratzinger, who ascended to the chair of Peter under the name Benedict XVI. His important contribution was to recall with his authoritativeness as a man of God and a great theologian a decisive truth: the work of renewal set in motion by Vatican II must be promoted in direct connection with the living core of the Gospel of Jesus and within the framework of ecclesial tradition.”

His prophetic vision

Perhaps less regarded is the pope’s prophetic vision of the Church. Already in 1969, on a German radio program, then Father Ratzinger foresaw that less and less people would fill the pews. Yet he highlighted his hopeful perspective of a Church that will resemble more closely the Church that God has in mind.

“The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road…

“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.

“As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.”

In God and the World. A Conversation with Peter Seewald, then-Cardinal Ratzinger asserted that accepting the fact that the Church will be numerically reduced is not pessimism, but simply realism. He added that this process of numerical reduction will have to be addressed by exploring new ways of openness to the outside.

He went on to say that missionary responsibility today calls on Christians to attempt a new evangelization, and he proposed the relationship between Jews and God-fearers (non-Jews who attached themselves to synagogues in the Roman Empire) as an example of how the Church might engage our post-modern world.

“The catechumenate of the early Church was very similar. Here people who didn’t feel able to identify with Christianity completely could, as it were, attach themselves to the Church so as to see whether they would take the step of joining her…

“This consciousness of not being a closed club, but of always being open to everyone and everything, is an inseparable part of the Church. And it is precisely with the shrinking of Christian congregations that we are experiencing that we shall have to consider looking for openness along the lines of such types of affiliations.”

A modern pope

Benedict’s papacy had lights and shadows. Some of his remarks became obstacles in the fields of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. His attempts to reform the Vatican Bank system did not go far enough.

His response to the clerical abuse scandal was seen as inadequate. In 2022, it came to the surface that he allegedly mishandled at least four cases of sexual abuse accusations in Germany.

Perhaps he will be remembered as a great pope because of his voluntary resignation on February 28, 2013. In announcing his decision, he told the cardinals that, at age 85, he did not have the strength, either of mind or body, to “adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

This step was revolutionary and shattered the image that many had of him as a conservative pope—further proof that these labels are always flawed.

He stayed in a convent on the Vatican grounds, praying for the Church. Tragically, he became for some a symbol of a cultural battle—here the modern Pope Francis, who in the words of some antagonists wants to alter the moral teachings of the Church; there the saintly Pope Emeritus, who prays to save it.

This image, created by some media outlets and fueled by a letter in 2019 in which Benedict saw the sexual revolution as the root of the abuse crisis, was false and dangerous for the unity of the Church.

While Benedict and Francis might have disagreed, Benedict believed in the power of unity and stated in an interview with the Italian magazine Corriere Della Sera that there is currently only one pope, Francis.

Benedict and the Focolare

In 1989, when he was already Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger was invited by Chiara Lubich to speak to focolarine gathered for their annual spiritual exercises. His words found a deep resonance in the hall.

“The last word in the history of the world will be communion, will be becoming communion, not only among ourselves but, being incorporated in trinitarian love, becoming universal communion, where God is all in all.”

When he was elected in 2005, Chiara wrote, “From the personal knowledge that I have of him, with his particular ability to grasp the light of the Holy Spirit, he will not fail to surprise and overcome any predictions.” Indeed, he did.

In a message read at Chiara’s funeral in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave thanks to God “for the gift given to the Church of this woman of intrepid faith, humble messenger of hope and peace, founder of a vast spiritual family that embraces many fields of evangelization.”

Focolare’s current president Margaret Karram recounted a personal encounter she had welcoming Pope Benedict to Jerusalem in May 2009, participating in various stages of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

“His words at the Holy Sepulcher remain with me: ‘Peace is possible here…the empty tomb speaks to us of hope, the very hope that does not disappoint, because it is the gift of the spirit of life,’” she said.

“Together with the whole Church, I thank God for the gift that Pope Benedict XVI has been for our time, and I pray that we will be able to grasp and translate into life the depth of his theological thought, fidelity to the Gospel and the courage of a life witness capable of leading the Church on the paths of truth, brotherhood and peace.”          

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.