Benedict XVI: two farewells and a legacy for history

The once eminent theologian died at the age of 95 leaving an indelible mark on the Church


The legacy of the Pope who decided, for the first time in six centuries, to leave his position.

Joseph Ratzinger adopted the name Benedict XVI when, on 19 April 2005, he took over from John Paul II as head of the Church. He began a journey that, unlike what had been happening since 1415 - when Gregory XII was forced to leave his post to end the Western Schism - ended before his death. However, if, like Ratzinger, one takes into account the freedom and self-will to leave the papacy, only two before him have done so in history: Clement I in 1997 and Celestine V in 1294.


This sign of courage and determination on the part of the Supreme Pontiff was the last act in a career that was characterised by these two virtues. But, of course, they were not the only ones. Bringing multiculturalism and respect for other religions closer together was a hallmark of Benedict XVI's identity. Proof of this are the good relations he maintained during his lifetime with some of the leading exponents of other doctrines, such as Cyril of Moscow, the secular name of Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundiyev, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, who praised Ratzinger after his death.
Cyril of Moscow highlighted his theological facet which, he believes, "allowed him to contribute significantly to the development of inter-Christian cooperation, to the testimony of Christ before a secularised world and to the defence of traditional moral values". The last Pope Emeritus in six centuries was precisely that, a professor, a man of culture, a humanist, who wrote three books on Jesus during his eight years as Bishop of Rome.


The road that led him to the Vatican

He deserted at the age of 16 after his unit disappeared from the anti-aircraft batteries of the Nazi army, and soon after began studying philosophy and theology at the University of Munich, training to be ordained a priest in 1951 with his brother Georg. Only two years later, he received his doctorate, and in 1957 he qualified as a university professor, where he taught fundamental theology at several universities in Germany. His extensive knowledge of the Second Vatican Council led to his appointment as a cardinal by Paul VI and, in 1981, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
This appointment, with which John Paul II paved his way to become Holy Pontiff, was the one that preceded the white smoke that in 2005 indicated that the 265th Vicar of Jesus Christ had been elected. A post which, as he himself acknowledged on being elected, he did not want: "At a certain point, I prayed to God 'please don't do this to me'. Evidently, this time He didn't listen to me". Who did listen for eight years was the Catholic Church, which had in Benedict XVI an element of concord and understanding that crossed the borders of its own religion. 
Since John Paul II made him prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he became the Pope's personal friend and guardian of the Church's faith. At that time, the former Pope saw in Ratzinger a successor with a very important spiritual background, knowledge and will to make the message of Christ known in every corner of the world. And so he did, with a message of fraternity and closeness, even in scenarios that were not at all favourable for the Church. But this is how Benedict XVI decided to carry out his papacy until the last of his journeys, which took him to Lebanon.

Lebanon: Benedict XVI's last journey

Benedict XVI made 25 trips during his career as Vicar of Jesus Christ. He made them all over the world, with a special presence in Europe, as could not be otherwise, including three trips to Spain. But that did not mean he left the rest of the world behind, far from it. He undertook a series of journeys aimed at inter-religious understanding and bringing people closer to other cultures. Cameroon, Angola, Turkey, Israel and Lebanon were witnesses to this and were able to see the Supreme Pontiff spreading these ideas in person.
Benedict XVI's messages on his last trip to the Middle East were crystal clear: "eradicate violence, work for peace and recover fraternal communion". The Pope gave eleven speeches in the Lebanese country, and in all of them he sought to deepen this message, which could well continue to apply to the region today, ten years later. In the three days of Ratzinger's visit, the support and expressions of affection for the Pope increased with each passing day. His arrival, marked by tight security measures, was not as warm as in other destinations.


However, his trip to Beirut had an antagonistic farewell to the reception. The mass held on 16 September 2012 at Beirut's City Center Waterfront was a historic event for the country. Most of those who filled the venue were Lebanese, but Syrian and Iraqi refugees were also represented, as well as pilgrims from neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Turkey. "Serving justice and peace is an urgent need to commit oneself to a fraternal society," Benedict XVI said in his homily, calling for "fostering communion".
Another highlight of his visit to Lebanon was the signing of the apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in Medio Oriente". This contains the conclusions of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East held in Rome in October 2010. Ratzinger expressed his desire to make it "a guide to advance along the multiform and complex paths on which Christ precedes you". He also expressed his gratitude to Beirut, and expressed his hope that it "will continue to allow the plurality of religious traditions, without being swayed by the voice of those who wish to prevent it".
In this way, Benedict XVI praised the religious openness of a country that welcomed him with open arms and with whom he wanted to connect through its youth. At the headquarters of the Maronite Patriarchate of Bkerké, he met with 26,000 young people who, waving Vatican and Lebanese flags, received him warmly. To them, the Pope conveyed a message of responsibility to the Church and to their country: "It is a question of your being actors in the future of your country and of fulfilling your role in society and in the Church", thus closing his last trip as Supreme Pontiff.


His link with the Middle East

Lebanon, although the last and therefore the most special, was not the only trip that Joseph Ratzinger made to the Middle East. He did, in fact, to one of the countries that for historical reasons has always been surrounded by controversy and instability, namely Israel. He was received by the then President Shimon Peres in a visit marked by two messages repeated by the Pope throughout his stay in the Holy Land: "security and peace".
Benedict XVI wanted to distance himself from a political vision of his visit to Israel and to distance himself, as far as possible, from the conflict with Palestine. However, he did show the position that he had defended on numerous occasions, calling for both peoples to have "a homeland of their own" with secure and "internationally recognised" borders. An advocate of a Palestinian state, Ratzinger saw its formation as the only way to end "the hostilities that have afflicted the Holy Land for so long". He called on Israelis and Palestinians to "explore every possible path in the search for a just solution to the obstacles that remain to be overcome".

AFP/ABIR SULTAN - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting of the new government at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, 24 May 2020.

On this trip, the Pope denounced anti-Semitism, calling for "no denial of Jewish suffering". After praying for the victims of the Holocaust and meeting six survivors, Ratzinger reaffirmed "the Church's commitment to pray and work tirelessly to ensure that hatred never reigns in the hearts of men". This pledge for peace that Benedict XVI tried to convey during his papacy was one of the reasons that brought him to Israel, as he wanted to promulgate inter-religious dialogue by being, as he himself said, "a pilgrim of peace".
And the proof of this is that, 14 years after his trip to the Holy Land, his legacy has remained intact. Both Israelis and Palestinians recognise the importance of the figure of Joseph Ratzinger and have sent a message expressing their sorrow at the death of the once important preacher of inter-religious dialogue. The President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, praised the late Pope and "his solidarity and support for the freedom and independence of the Palestinian people". Likewise, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his condolences to what he said was "a great spiritual leader and committed himself wholeheartedly to the historic reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish world".

AP/ALEX BRANDON - Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas

The fact that Netanyahu speaks of a German and theologically Orthodox as "a true friend of the State of Israel and the Jewish people" demonstrates the important work that Benedict XVI did during his eight years at the head of the Church. And it becomes even more important when viewed in the light of his past in World War II, where he was an adjutant in the Nazi army's anti-aircraft batteries. However, it has often been reported that he was a member of the Hitler Youth, which was never the case.
Joseph Ratzinger ended his career as Pope prematurely because he felt that the forces, due to his advanced age, were "no longer fit". He left his pontificate at a time when he felt he was no longer fit to represent the Church as its highest exponent. His work as Bishop of Rome had come to an end, but his teachings, his will to spread religion and to conduct a fraternal inter-religious dialogue will remain forever.