Benedict XVI

by frankbeswick

Yesterday the world said goodbye to a man of great scholarship and holiness.This article explores his life

A person's life is not just a set of facts.It is an interaction between a variety of influences. Benedict's life was shaped by his native Germany, under whose Nazi Reich he spent thirteen stressful years.but he had the support of a Catholic family and he was buoyed by membership of the church, which gave meaning to his life. It was within the church that he found his vocation,though there was a tension between his personal desires and the vocation that God gave him,

Photo courtesy of Wengen, of Pixabay

Early Influences


Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict's birth name, was born in 1927 in the predominantly Catholic state of Bavaria into a devoutly Catholic and politically moderate family with three children. (Benedict was his regnal name.) His father was a police officer who took a firm line with misbehaviour by Nazi thugs,arresting several of them.the environment of the home was devout. Joseph senior provided the intellectual rigour of young Joseph's life while mother contributed a strong devotional element. This combination of rigorous thought and deep Catholic devotion was to form a firm grounding  to the future pope's religious life. It certainly led to both sons becoming priests. The home was deeply musical, and both priestly sons carried musicality with them throughout their lives. Joseph,the younger of the two, was by far the most intellectually talented  and began to do well academically.

When Joseph was six the Nazis, whom his father had actively resisted, took power, leaving the family into a politically precarious position. This led to the family's moving a few times to different, more amenable areas before Joseph senior took a police pension and retired to a small farm away from the more politically dangerous larger places. There the Ratzinger family lived in hope of the eventual ending of Nazi tyranny. At this stage they looked for a future beyond the darkness through which they could not see.

Young Joseph's teens were lived under the shadow of the tyrant. He went to the Catholic junior seminary, a training school for boys wanting to be priests, at the age of twelve, which provided something of a shelter from pressure to join the Hitler youth, but the respite from tyranny was not to be long. Eventually all boys were compulsorily enroĺled in this movement, and the punishment for not joining was that the boy's father would be sent to a concentration camp. Joseph's solution was to attend one meeting and, I suspect, make himself so useless that no one complained that this physically weak inadequate never came to another meeting.

Eventually at the age of eighteen he was drafted, but did military service in an auxiliary anti aircraft unit. Luckily he did not need to fight, as he was involved in sending communications to gunners. This was a miserable time in his life. In 1945 he saw a column of Jews and others being marched from one camp to another,but was powerless to assist, as complaints were punished by instant death. In one incident a senior Nazi visited Joseph's unit to tell them that they were all volunteering for the SS. Joseph resolutely refused and said that he was a Catholic training for the priesthood. This was a risky testimony, but the shocked official did not press the point.

Eventually, as the war was ending Joseph deserted his unit and headed for home. He did not stay long at home, as he was taken prisoner by the Americans and spent some time in a prison camp, but he must not have been a threat, as he was soon released and free to resume his priestly studies. We see here a young man trying to survive with his conscience unsuĺlied under an appalling tyranny and succeeding.His life was on a course set for God and he was still on target.


Joseph took well to theological study, but here we find something of a tension that was to trouble him in his future life. At heart his greatest love was study, and his dream was to be a professor of theology, though he also displayed a passion and a talent for philosophy. He dreamed of living a quietly studious existence centred on books and lectures and he believed that this is the way in which he could serve God best. But God seemed to have other ideas. Joseph was an ordained priest and this meant pastoral responsibility. He served as a curate for a few years and then moved quickly to the post of theology lecturer, eventually becoming a professor. He was in the life that he had always desired.

As a theologian He was an obvious candidate for a role as a peritus, an expert advisor at he Vatican Council. At this stage he was considered a liberal and a modernist as opposed to a conservative. He achieved great success in this role, but it came at a cost, as he was eventually to see that the political and religious follow up to the council was not following its spirit. He decided that the church would have to get a grip on the tide of what some people called liberalism and liturgical experiment that swept through the church. He was. sage enough to see that progressive movements in Christianity were introducing Marxist ideas into the church and that uncontrolled liturgical experimentation was wreaking havoc with the traditional Catholic rituals that were hallowed by centuries of tradition. He also disapproved of the aggressive student radicalism that beset the nineteen sixties, and a legend went round, spread by a rival theologian Hans Kung, that his lectures had been disrupted by student radicals, but this is contested by  sources who commented on his good relationship with students.

From his life as a theologian He made friends and foes. Well- known modernizing theologians like Urs von Balthasar and Henri De Lubac became good friends, but Kung,, who had a good connection with the press, would ever be a vocal critic responsible for presenting Benedict as a hard liner. In later years as Kung was dying of cancer the ever merciful Benedict invited him to the Vatican and made peace. Benedict would later come into conflict with South American liberation theologians because they were introducing Marxist ideas into Theology. For this he  was falsely nicknamed God's Rotweiler, and written off as a hardline Conservative. 

To Higher Things.

There is a parallel between the life of Benedict and that of St Augustine. Both were scholars who wanted to meet the problems of their times, both confronted the heresies besetting the church, both had a foe, e.g. Kung and Pelagius, and both were reluctantly pulled from a life of scholarly contemplation to become a bishop, a position for which each considered himself untalented. 

In Benedict's case the promotion gradient was steep. He skipped the usual steps of auxiliary bishop and bishop to rise to archbishop of Munich. This was not an easy step and Benedict hesitated before he was prevailed upon to accept. Perhaps it was too quick a rise. Did he at this stage sense that his rise was yet unfinished? I don't know. However, he worked to make a success of his duties. But was he sufficiently tough to be a ruler. He was known as a gentle person ever disposed to mercy. The accusations that he was soft on certain abuse cases arise from this period.

But the pressure on Benedict grew greater, for while he was still archbishop Pope John Paul asked him to take charge of the Holy Office, the church's department that deals with internal discipline. It is a ful time job that carries with it the rank of Dean of the college of cardinals. As it is based in Rome Benedict wanted to hand over his archbishop's role, but John Paul insisted that he kept it on. This I consider a mistake, even though it was not an arrangement that lasted very long, but two full time jobs are beyond the powers of mere mortals.

 Benedict worked for many years at his post. Responsibility for discipline did not come easily to him, it was a cross. He had to develop an understanding of when it was necessary to be ruthless. He became aware of the scale of the abuse scandal, but was, it is said, hampered by John Paul who was so horrified that he was in denial, a condition not helped by his advancing age. Benedict was growing tired, and on occasions begged John Paul to let him retire, and once even asked could he take charge of the Vatican library, his dream job. But to no avail.


In 2005 when John Paul died Benedict hoped that he could retire to his native Bavaria and write theology  books. It was not to be. As the votes began to stack up for him he experienced pangs of doubt, but he decided that the vote signified that the Holy Spirit was calling him to the papacy and he then submitted to God's will. He would never become papal librarian and Bavaria would be just a dream. 

Most papal work is routine appointments with bishops and political and religious leaders, as the Pope strives to further the church's mission in the world, but a big and onerous job is managing the Vatican. The Vatican finances are Byzantine in complexity and were infiltrated by organised crime. Getting to grips with it required someone tougher than Benedict. The political scheming as cardinals jostle for influence is an embarrassment to the church.The gentle scholar had a hard time. The criticism of the mishandling of the Williamson case, when the Vatican lifted the excommunication of a schismatic bishop, only to find that he was a holocaust denier  (not an excommunicable offence) was an embarrassment, but it was due to officials not doing their homework, but people were quick to blame the Pope.

Yet each pope has his strengths and weaknesses, and Benedict brought his superb theological and philosophical mind to the service of the church. He wrote books on Christian theology, and as is so often the case, the greatest thinkers are the clearest writers. He wrote with exceptional lucidity and clarity.

But towards the end of his papacy his body, never the strongest or toughest, was beginning to trouble him,and he felt that he was no longer capable of handling the large workload of the papacy. Moreover, the pressures of managing the Vatican were becoming too much. Major changes were needed and he no longer felt up to handling them. After a period of prayer and reflection he decided to stand down in favour of a stronger man more capable of managing and reforming papal institutions than Benedict was. 

He abdicated and retired to a monastery on Vatican grounds, and only then could he finally achieve the life of quiet prayer and scholarship for which he had long yearned. It was much deserved. Requiescat in Pace. [May he rest in peace.] 


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Benedict the Sixteenth

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Updated: 01/04/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 18 days ago

No. There is no hereditary successor to the pope, so there cannot be an automatic succession. The mediaeval church strove hard to oppose attempts at automatic, hereditary succession.

DerdriuMarriner 19 days ago

Thank you!

Might that be the same reason for the papal coronation?

frankbeswick 20 days ago

UK law states that the moment that a sovereign dies their successor becomes monarch. So the instant that Elizabeth died Charles became king. The coronation does not make the successor a monarch, but is a way of signalling to the world that there is a monarch in place and making a show for the people.

DerdriuMarriner 20 days ago

Intervals between papal election and coronation bring to mind the lags between one monarch dying and another being crowned, such as the timespan between Queen Elizabeth II's passing and King Charles III being so crowned.

So it's a somewhat related, somewhat unrelated question that I'm posing. Is there a minimum and a maximum amount of time during which royal coronations take place?

frankbeswick 20 days ago

There is not a specified time between papal election and coronation, but there is a rough time interval expected, a few weeks.

DerdriuMarriner 21 days ago

Thank you!

I misinterpreted the cassock-making as occurring between the announcement and the coronation even as it actually must be between the need (for the announcement and the coronation, because of death) and the announcement.

Would there always be a set amount of time between the announcement and the coronation?

You know, like in another context (Unitedstatesian political) in another country (west-pond US ;-D), the November presidential election traditionally signifies a January presidential inauguration?

frankbeswick 21 days ago

I don't know for sure, but once the identity of the new pope is settled a better fitting cassock can be created.

DerdriuMarriner 22 days ago

The computer crashed before I could add my amused observation to your three-cassock comment regarding papal coronationations.

Might the three sizes be for maintaining weight, losing weight, gaining weight?

If so, how much of a weight allowance would there be for gaining and losing weight?

frankbeswick 22 days ago


DerdriuMarriner 22 days ago

Whether or not it is from henceforth ;-D!

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