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A look back: Benedict XVI’s life as pope emeritus

Courtney Mares By Courtney Mares for CNA

Pope Francis greets Pope emeritus Benedict XVI at the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae Monastery on Nov. 28, 2020. (Credit: Vatican Media.)

Rome Newsroom, Jan 7, 2023 / 08:00 am (CNA).

Pope Benedict XVI spent the final decade of his life largely out of the public eye, living in retirement as pope emeritus in a monastery in Vatican City.

The retired pope, whose pontificate lasted from 2005 to 2013, was the first pope to resign in almost 600 years, shocking the world with a Latin-language announcement of his retirement on Feb. 11, 2013.

He was 85 years old at the time and cited his advanced age and lack of strength as reasons for the decision.

Before officially stepping down on Feb. 28, 2013, Benedict promised to live out his retirement “hidden” from the world.

“Even if I am withdrawing into prayer, I will always be close to all of you and I am sure that you will be close to me, even if I remain hidden to the world,” he said on Feb. 14, 2013.

In his final words as pope, he said: “I’m simply a pilgrim who is beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on Earth. … Let us go forward with the Lord for the good of the Church and the world.”

Having chosen for himself the title “pope emeritus,” on his last day as pope he traveled by helicopter from Vatican City to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

A few weeks later, on May 2, 2013, he moved to the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the gardens of Vatican City, where he lived until his death. The small four-story building was built in the early 1990s as a contemplative space for cloistered nuns inside the walls of Vatican City State.

Women belonging to the Memores Domini community, a lay association affiliated with Communion and Liberation, helped to care for the retired pope.

Throughout his retirement, Benedict continued to wear white but without the red shoes he had worn as pope. He also adopted a simple white cassock instead of the more formal cassock (often called a “simar”) with the “pellegrina,” or shoulder cape. According to the Italian Dominican theologian Father Giovanni Cavalcoli, the retired pope continued to wear white because he considered the papacy a second episcopal ordination. Bishops emeriti keep their emblems and titles. The same applies to the pope emeritus, according to this interpretation.

Benedict emerged from seclusion in February 2014 to attend his successor’s first consistory for the creation of new cardinals. In April of that year, he attended the canonizations of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the pope emeritus’ longtime personal secretary, said that Benedict used a walker to help him get around.

“He maintains a fairly extensive correspondence, but he no longer writes books, he just dictates letters to his secretary,” Gänswein told the Italian magazine BenEssere in 2016.

“He deliberately leads a life as a monk, but he is by no means isolated: he prays, reads, hears music, receives visitors, plays the piano.”

A 30-minute television segment on the Bavarian network BR24 in 2020 outlined the pope emeritus’ daily routine, which included beginning each morning with Mass at 7:30 a.m. in the small chapel inside the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, followed by time spent in his office, which was described as being “like a library.”

While he remained largely out of the public eye — increasingly so in his later years as his health slowly declined — the retired pope did contribute his thoughts on some of the major controversies confronting the Church. He was, however, judicious in such statements even as the contributions demonstrated that the retired pontiff had lost none of his theological genius in the seclusion of the Vatican Gardens.

One intervention came in April 2019 when he released a previously unpublished essay on the Church and the sexual abuse crisis after the significant summit on the abuse crisis convoked by Pope Francis in Rome earlier in February. He noted that he “had served in a position of responsibility as shepherd of the Church at the time of the public outbreak of the crisis, and during the run-up to it,” and so he hoped to add his reflections to the discussion.

He analyzed the devastating effects of the sexual revolution and the collapse of Catholic moral theology “that rendered the Church defenseless against these changes in society.” He bluntly spoke to the effects of the sex-abuse crisis on the Church, but he also confronted the deeper crisis in the modern world and in the Church through the loss of faith.

“Today,” he wrote, “the accusation against God is, above all, about characterizing his Church as entirely bad, and thus dissuading us from it. The idea of a better Church, created by ourselves, is in fact a proposal of the devil, with which he wants to lead us away from the living God, through a deceitful logic by which we are too easily duped.”

In January 2020, Benedict contributed an essay to a book defending priestly celibacy that concluded with a reflection on the words of John 17:17–18: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

He wrote that the words struck him deeply on the day before his ordination and led him to reflect on the lifelong calling of a priest to continually unite himself to Christ.

In 2022, the retired pope was once again the subject of headlines around the world after a report commissioned by the Munich Archdiocese accused him of mishandling four cases of sexual abuse by priests when he served as archbishop there from 1977 to 1982.

He personally requested forgiveness from abuse survivors in a letter responding to the report. The letter was accompanied by a three-page rebuttal of the report’s criticisms, signed by four advisers of the pope emeritus.

Pope Francis often made visits to Benedict on important occasions, calling him the “grandfather of all grandfathers.”

“I have said many times that it gives me great pleasure that he lives here in the Vatican, because it is like having a wise grandfather at home,” Pope Francis said in 2014.

Ultimately, Benedict served longer as the pope emeritus than he did as pope, and far longer than many had anticipated, including the retired pontiff himself. During a June celebration marking his 95th birthday at the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, Germany, organized by the Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI Foundation, Gänswein recalled with great emotion that Benedict once told him, “I would never have believed that the last stretch of the journey that would take me from the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery to the gates of heaven with St. Peter would be so long.”

Gänswein added that even though the years took their toll and sapped the former pontiff’s strength and health, he always had “an alert, wide-awake mind and gaze.”

For a decade, Benedict prayed, wrote, and made his final years of life an offering to God. As Gänswein succinctly described, through it all the pope emeritus “preserved the humble serenity of his heart.”

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  1. As the “grandfather of all grandfathers,” pope emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us long ago that not all “polarity” is bad and that not all “synthesis” is good. And, that the Church and a possibly truncated “People of God” are not the same thing.

    Two quotes from Benedict’s “Introduction to Christianity” (1968) which, surely, will be unambiguously formative and cleansing in the Synod on Synodality’s “aggregated and compiled” final “synthesis”:

    FIRST: “The two fundamental structural forms of ‘Incarnation’ theology and ‘Cross’ theology reveal polarities [!] that cannot be surmounted and combined in a neat synthesis without the loss of the crucial points in each; they must remain present as polarities that mutually correct each other and only by complementing each other point toward the whole” (Ignatius, 1990, p. 230).

    SECOND: “…But the idea that one can do more constructive work in isolation than in fellowship with others is just as much an illusion [!] as the notion of a Church of ‘holy people’ instead of a ‘holy Church’ that is holy because the Lord bestows holiness on her as a quite unmerited gift” (ibid., 344).

    Note: The Second Vatican Council is clear, as for example, that “the term ‘People of God’ refers to the total community of the Church, including the pastors as well as the other faithful” (Documents, The Church, Abbott version fn. 27), such that the Successors of the Apostles and others ordained “differ from [‘the common priesthood of the faithful’] in essence and not only in degree,” n. 10).

  2. “He considered the papacy a second episcopal” (Fr Giovanni Cavalcoli OP). Theologian Cavalcoli identifies a new theology created by Benedict criticized by Eric Sammons pejoratively as an invention. “The retired pope did contribute his thoughts on some of the major controversies confronting the Church” [Courtney Mares CNA], that “The idea of a better Church, created by ourselves, is in fact a proposal of the devil, with which he wants to lead us away from the living God, through a deceitful logic” (Emeritus Benedict).
    Herein is a very significant reality that cannot be dismissed. Benedict’s limited though clear presence in retirement as a man, still possessing the aura of papacy in direct criticism [by inference as perceived by this writer] of the current papacy. Is it within the purview of right reason, theoretical as such, that his retirement, reclusive though remaining active, on this score a criticism of Francis’ widely acknowledged “idea of a better Church, created by ourselves”? A synodal Church, a new epochal transformation, practice of the faith pastoral in essence unfettered by doctrine. That Benedict’s retirement, in his unique, unprecedented, theology left him in the position to countermand the anticipated “deceitful logic” now being perpetrated?

  3. You could look at it still higher. Heaven provides for a papal retirement that yielded a unique-in-salvation-history, irreproducible protective and antidote to the threat of decay (and further decay) in the Church. A rare arrangement of transparent (double-blind?) dual prayer and custodianship. And didn’t we need it, considering the eventual covid drama to come? (now largely past…. whence Papa Benedict goes Home). Also justice, because with him departed and, the Church as it now is, the spiritual atmosphere is already darkened, feeling the just(?) absence of his powerful earthly prayers.

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