Benedict XVI has become the first pope to abdicate in nearly 600 years. In his last public address to his followers he said he was “simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth.” He seemed relieved as he turned back inside, a genuine smile on his face gave him an aura notably different than the one we saw eight years ago when he emerged as the world’s 265th Roman Catholic pope.
Back then, after we had spent two long days in the newsroom trying to differentiate between black and white smoke, one of my former colleagues summed things up by saying “Il a l’air méchant!” (he looks mean). She wasn’t the only one to see that. In addition to being one of the oldest popes ever elected, there was something about the guy that suggested he wasn’t fully at ease stepping onto that balcony.
The next hours were spent trying to dissect the past of the man whose real name is Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger. Like other German teenage boys, he’d been a member of the Hitler Youth. Years later when World War II was coming to a close, he deserted the German army but still ended up spending a few months in a POW camp. Ratzinger returned to his theological studies upon his release. Some 25 years later in 1977, he became a Cardinal.
Pope John Paul II named him Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (previously known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition). In addition to heading the body responsible for defending and reaffirming official Catholic doctrine, Ratzinger was also in charge of investigating crimes within the Church, including the sexual abuse of minors by disgraceful priests and clerics.
Ratzinger spent nearly 25 years as ‘God’s Rottweiler’ but was reported to have expressed a desire to reitre even back then. Nevertheless, as his predecessor grew increasingly frail, Ratzinger was seen as the likely sucessor, despite his old age and his wishes. Sure enough, he was elected John Paul’s sucessor on April 19, 2005.
Benedict XVI’s papacy was dominated by the sexual abuse scandal. Given his previous role in the Vatican, his critics accuse him of being complicit in covering up the pervasive abuse that has so badly damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church in recent years. His supporters say that Benedict/Ratzinger had invested all the power in his office to affect change. Whether he was truly a source of good or evil, the man will forever be linked with the ever growing sex abuse scandal. It dominated his nearly eight year papacy and must have been a living hell for him. It’s really no surprise he wanted out.
When I travelled to Italy a couple years ago my friend and I passed through Rome on Easter weekend, less than a month before John Paul II’s beatification ceremony. There were pictures of the former pope everywhere and all you heard on the streets and TV was talk of Giovanni Paolo. Pictures of Pope Benedict XVI were nowhere to be seen, and he didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind.
A few months ago, I was visiting one of the Franciscan missions in California. One had to struggle to find anything with Ratzinger’s face on it in the giftshop. Meanwhile, JPII was everywhere… they even had a special section for him in the store.
Even though he was Pope during the time that most of the abuse within the Church is said to have occured, John Paul II was far more popular than his sucessor will ever be. Whether you love him, hate him, or couldn’t care less about him, Joseph Ratzinger will be remembered as the only man in living memory to walk away from the papacy. That’s not going to sever his links to sexual abuse in the Church, but it will help muddy the waters a little bit more and possibly improve his legacy. Surely this is not the last we’ll be hearing about him… at least in the press.