Reflecting on the Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI

Reflect with us here on the life of Pope Benedict XVI.

On Saturday, December 31, 2022, the world received the news that Pope Benedict XVI passed away. We offered our condolences alongside countless others and reflected on the life and legacy of the pope emeritus. Here, one writer shares his own thoughts on Benedict XVI and how he will remember the pope.

When Pope Benedict XVI died in the early morning of December 31 at the age of 95, it was the second time in almost ten years we have said goodbye to him. Back in February 2013, in the single decision he will be remembered most for centuries into the future, he was the first pope to resign from the papacy since 1415, and the first since 1294 to do so of his own volition.

He announced he was leaving at an early-morning gathering of church leaders. He picked up a piece of paper and read aloud in Latin: “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… For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome…” 

Monsignor Oscar Sanchez, a Mexican priest, was in the room that day. “The cardinals were just looking at one another. Then the pope got to his feet, gave his benediction and left. It was so simple; the simplest thing imaginable. Extraordinary. Nobody expected it,” he told the Guardian newspaper soon after. “Then we all left in silence. There was absolute silence… and sadness.”

There’s the stunned grief of confronting an unexpected loss in that quote from the monsignor. You could imagine him saying something similar if the pope had passed away. I remember being stunned, too. My wife woke me up early in a hotel we were staying at for a work conference. I shot up from my pillow. For the next few days, I talked with dozens of people about why Benedict might have chosen this and who would be elected next and the pope’s legacy and how his departure would affect the Church.

Pope emeritus Benedict was largely quiet but not entirely silent after that morning, writing occasionally and giving a few statements to the press. Sometimes I would forget he lived just a few minutes away from Pope Francis in Vatican City. I largely stopped thinking about him altogether, honestly.

Today, sitting with Pope Benedict’s death is a strange experience. How do I mourn someone I feel like we lost a long time ago? How do I mourn a pope who was sandwiched between the legendary Pope John Paul II and the groundbreaking Pope Francis, whose tenure was marked by crises, and a sometimes tenuous handling of scandal as much or more than successes? How do I mourn someone I have conflicted feelings about?

Perhaps I can try to start with gratitude: gratitude for Benedict’s beautiful theological writings, gratitude for his service to the Church, gratitude for the way he made the incredibly courageous decision to step aside, gratitude for how his humility paved the way for Pope Francis — a pope I find much easier to love.

I’m also thankful to belong to a Church community that has a pope at all. The idea that our Church has been led by hundreds of popes of varying gifts and talents and temperaments all the way back to Saint Peter, Jesus’ closest apostle, makes me feel part of such a rich and strong tradition. The fact that our Church community has continued onward through papacies of unbelievable corruption and sin makes me think we really might be led by the grace of God after all.  

And there were certainly elements of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy I do truly treasure. He was occasionally called the “Green Pope” for the way he emphasized care of the environment — a theme often associated more with Pope Francis, but a point of real continuity between them. He appointed many very fine bishops here in the United States. And his papal writings, chiefly his encyclical letter “Deus Caritas Est,” are wonderful, often moving reads. 

As one of the preeminent Catholic theologians of our era, I find his prose more engaging than the writing of John Paul II or even Pope Francis. Like this sentence: “Love is the light — and in the end, the only light — that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working.” Or this one: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” He wrote with a warmth and a clear love of God and neighbor that defied his reputation as the “rottweiler,” a doctrinal warrior out to squash any form of dissent. 

What I’m grateful for most of all is the way Pope Benedict let go of the papacy. Instead of clinging to earthly power, as so many leaders of all types of institutions do far longer than they should, he loosened his grip when he felt the time was right. Some might call him a failure or coward for doing this. But sacrifice on behalf of the community is never failure with the eyes of faith. 

His decision reminds me of how Jesus himself is described in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, where we read that Christ did not think of his divine omnipotence as “something to be grasped,” but “emptied himself” to the point of death on the cross. Jesus had things that were good in and of themselves — an earthly life, power to heal and comfort, devoted followers — but he let go of them out of love for others. We act in accordance with Christ’s divine love when we put the needs of our neighbors ahead of our own wants. Benedict modeled this for us better than almost anyone.

In these moments of loss and recollection, gratitude seems to be a good place to start. One more quotation from “Deus Caritas Est” is a fitting epitaph for the pope who did what he could do, then graciously stepped aside:

There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14).

Amen. Rest in peace.

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