Former pope Benedict XVI dies aged 95

German predecessor to Pope Francis became first pontiff to step down as head of Catholic church in 600 years

Pope Benedict XVI, who served as leader of the Catholic church from 2005 until his resignation in 2013, died on Saturday aged 95, three days after his successor, Pope Francis, warned the world that he was gravely ill.

The Vatican announced that Francis would preside at Benedict’s funeral in St Peter’s Square on Thursday. From Monday, his body will lie at St Peter’s Basilica to allow the faithful to pay respects.

Benedict’s death brings to a close an unprecedented period in recent history where two popes have coexisted, a situation that has caused tensions within rival camps in the Vatican. It eases the way for his successor, Pope Francis, to consider whether to follow Benedict by retiring at some point – impossible while the outcome would have been three popes.

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer paid warm tribute to Benedict, referring to his 2010 visit to the UK as a historic moment. Other world leaders including Ireland’s Michael D Higgins, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and Germany’s Olaf Scholz also issued tributes.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster and leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, said he was a scholar, pastor and a man of God who would be remembered for “his courtesy, his gentleness, the perceptiveness of his mind and the openness of his welcome to everybody that he met”.

Justin Welby, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, said Benedict was “one of the greatest theologians of his age”.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis announced during his weekly audience that Benedict was “very sick” and asked for people to pray for him.

Benedict, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger in Germany in 1927, was a deeply conservative pontiff, whose tenure was overshadowed by sexual abuse scandals in the church. He retired leaving a chequered reputation after a papacy that was at times divisive.

The son of a policeman, he grew up in rural Bavaria and at the age of 14 joined the Hitler Youth, a requirement, and served in the German army in the second world war. Towards the end of the war, he deserted and was briefly held as a prisoner of war by US forces.

He later became a major figure in the Vatican and, as Cardinal Ratzinger, served as a right-hand man to his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. He headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican department once known as the Inquisition, for 24 years, a position that earned him the nickname “God’s rottweiler”.

During his tenure, allegations of clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up began to surface. His critics said he failed to grasp the gravity of the crimes and the scale of the crisis, which reached a peak several years after he was elected pope in April 2005.

As well as the flood of allegations, lawsuits and official reports relating to sexual abuse and the priests’ complicity in covering it up, the Vatican was also rocked by the theft of confidential documents, many of which later appeared in an exposé of alleged corruption. In October 2012, a Vatican court convicted the pope’s personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, of stealing the papers. He told the trial he had been acting against “evil and corruption”.

Benedict held uncompromising positions on homosexuality and contraception. He had strongly opposed liberation theology, a radical movement that began in South American in the 1960s and advocated clerical social activism among the poor and marginalised.

His sudden resignation at the age of 85, in February 2013, the first pope to do so since the middle ages, left the church reeling. He said at the time that he did not have the strength to carry on as leader of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics. “I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me,” he said.

He took the title of Pope Emeritus, and pledged to remain “hidden to the world”, devoting himself to private prayer. He retired to in a monastery in Vatican City, where he read, wrote letters and articles, received guests and played the piano.

But the former pope remained a powerful conservative influence and a focus for opponents of Francis’s efforts to reform the church and redirect it to serving the poor. He repeatedly made his views known through letters, articles and interviews. In April 2019, two months after Francis convened a groundbreaking Vatican conference on sexual abuse, Benedict published a 6,000-word letter saying abuse was a product of a culture of sexual freedom dating from the 1960s.

In January 2020, Benedict publicly defended clerical celibacy, as Francis was considering allowing married men to become priests in limited circumstances. “I cannot keep silent,” he wrote in a book, From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, arguing that priestly celibacy protected the mystery of the church.

The controversy, which erupted just before The Two Popes – a film about the apparently warm relationship between Benedict and Francis – was aired on Netflix, exposed tensions between rival Vatican camps.

Additional reporting by Angela Giuffrida in Rome


Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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