Pope Benedict XVI dies at 95

Pope Benedict XVI holds his last general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on February 27, 2013. | Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the prominent German-born Roman Catholic Church leader who served as pope from 2005 until 2013, has died at age 95. 

The Holy See Press Office announced that the former pontiff died at his residence at the Vatican's Mater Ecclesiae Monastery on Saturday morning, reported Vatican News

Pope Francis will preside over Benedict XVI's funeral on Jan. 5 at. St. Peter's Square, and that the late Catholic church official will lie in state at the basilica starting on Monday. 

The son of a Bavarian police officer, Benedict was born Joseph Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in the village of Marktl am Inn, Germany.

Although his family opposed Nazism, Ratzinger was compelled to join the Hitler Youth as a teenager and was later conscripted into an auxiliary anti-aircraft unit of the German Army.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, defended Ratzinger's past in an interview with ABC News published in 2013.

"The fact that he was in the Hitler youth — if you were a young child during the Third Reich and you didn't go, you'd be condemned," said Hier. "He didn't volunteer. That's not a blemish. We've done a bunch of research, and that should be very clear."

On June 29, 1951, Ratzinger was ordained a Catholic priest alongside his brother Georg at the Corbinian and Saint Mary Cathedral in Freising, Bavaria.

In the 1950s, Ratzinger became a professor specializing in fundamental theology and dogma, teaching at multiple Catholic academic institutions.

"He then taught dogma and fundamental theology at the higher school of philosophy and theology of Freising; then in Bonn from 1959 to 1969; in Münster from 1963 to 1966; and in Tübingen from 1966 to 1969," noted the Vatican's official biography of Ratzinger.

"Beginning in 1969, he was a professor of dogmatic theology and of the history of dogma at the University of Regensburg, where he eventually became Dean and Vice-Rector."

On March 24, 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed Ratzinger the Archbishop of München and Freising. Later that year, he was elevated to the rank of cardinal.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Ratzinger as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a prominent entity responsible for defending the Church from heresy.

For the next several years, Ratzinger was a prominent figure in the upper Catholic Church hierarchy, overseeing work on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and becoming dean of the College of Cardinals.

Ratzinger was generally conservative on theological issues, arguing that the Church's stance against abortion and euthanasia was of greater importance than other positions.

"While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment," wrote Ratzinger in a memorandum in 2004.

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not, however, with regard to abortion and euthanasia."

On April 19, 2005, 17 days after the death of Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger was elected the new pope of the Roman Catholic Church, taking the name Benedict XVI.

While serving as pope, Benedict XVI restored the traditional Latin Mass, created an ordinariate system for Anglican churches to join the Catholic Church, and made a historic visit to a Roman synagogue.

His reign also included ongoing issues regarding the priest sexual abuse scandal, with Benedict enacting measures to combat the problem and denying that he had helped hide the abuse.

This included overseeing the defrocking of about 400 priests who had committed child abuse over the span of two years, according to documents released by the Associated Press in 2014.

Benedict XVI also sparked widespread outrage in the Muslim world over a 2006 speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany when he quoted an anti-Islamic Medieval text.

The pontiff later apologized for quoting the passage, explaining in a statement that the words of the historic text "do not in any way express my personal thought."

In 2013, the 85-year-old Benedict XVI announced his resignation, becoming the first pope in about 600 years to do so. The last had been Pope Gregory XII, who did so to help end the Great Schism when multiple men claimed the position.

"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," explained Benedict in a statement at the time.

Benedict took the title of "Pope Emeritus" and remained at Vatican City, being succeeded by Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who took the name Francis upon becoming pope.

Despite some ideological differences, Francis has spoken well of his predecessor, explaining in December 2022 that he "has a good sense of humor" and a "clear gaze."

In June 2020, Benedict left the Vatican to visit his ailing older brother Georg in Germany, who died on July 1 of that year at 96. He became ill over the course of the trip.

By August of that year, the Vatican released a statement assuring the public that while frail in his old age and suffering from shingles, the former pontiff was not seriously ill at that point.

Although the Catholic Church expressed some ethical concerns over the origins of the COVID-19 vaccine, both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis received vaccinations.

On Wednesday, the Vatican announced that Benedict XVI was seriously ill, with Pope Francis asking for prayers for the retired pontiff. 

"I would like to ask you all for a special prayer for Pope Emeritus Benedict, who is sustaining the church in silence," stated Francis, as reported by the Associated Press

"Remember him — he is very ill — asking the Lord to console him and to sustain him in this testimony to love for the church, until the end."

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