Pope Benedict XVI: A gentle teacher, a great defender and an intellectual force

Regarded as one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century, Pope Benedict XVI, the 264th successor of St. Peter, will leave behind a legacy as a great teacher who had to walk in the wake of one of the greatest popes in history, Saint John Paul II.

A man willing to make his mark on history, he became one of the few popes in history to ever relinquish their position as head of the Catholic Church and was described as the main intellectual force in the Church since the mid-1980s.

Pope Benedict XVI, 95, died at 9.34 am on 31 December 2022 at Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican.

During his life, he witnessed first-hand the rise and fall of the Nazi Party in his native Germany, and helmed the Catholic Church during a period of intense social change through the 21st century.

He expressed a desire to become a cardinal when he was just five-years old, and joined the seminary at just months after his 18th birthday. Ordained as a priest in 1951, he would go on to spend a large part of his vocational life as a professor and theologian.

He was a gifted teacher of the faith, authoring 66 books. He was bestowed eight honorary doctorates during his lifetime.

Benedict was a major figure within the walls of Vatican City for a quarter of a century before his election as Pope in 2005, serving as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 25 years, promoting and defending Catholic doctrine, particularly on issues of birth control, homosexuality and inter-religious dialogue against an increasingly secular culture.

He served as vice-dean and then dean of the College of Cardinals, celebrating the funeral mass of Pope John Paul II.

Elected pope in the twilight of his life, he became the oldest person elected to the papacy in close to 300 years. Given the age he took on the role, he didn't travel as often and widely as that of his predecessor Pope John Paul II, who was two decades younger when he first took charge of the Church in 1978 and was subsequently the most travelled pope.

However Benedict's apostolic journeys included Mexico and Cuba, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, UK and Australia.

Benedict and Pope John Paul II were of very different styles, the latter developing an enduring relationship with young people around the world, and leaving the great legacy of World Youth Day.

Benedict, theologian and scholar, served the Church with humility, gentleness and dignity.

Taking on the name Benedict, he wished to emulate the work of Pope Benedict XV, who courageously guided the Church through turbulent times of war. He said he wished to place his ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples.

A man of refined sartorial taste, he was known as “the pope of aesthetics”. It was the distinctive garb of a visiting cardinal when he was just a child that first kindled the fire of his vocation.

In adopting a style of dress more akin to pope of the 19thCentury, Benedict opted to embrace the tradition which he so vigorously defended. His red Moroccan leather shoes became a hallmark of his papacy and his at times opulent fashion sought to embody the splendour, beauty, and mystery of the liturgy.

Despite his age, Benedict also took steps to connect with emerging technology, joining social networking website Twitter under the handle @Pontifex in 2012.

He will be fondly remembered by Australian Catholics for his attendance at World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, celebrating mass in front of around 500,000 people and delivering an historic apology for clergy child sex abuse.

Despite this apology, his leadership of the Church’s handling of historic sex abuse cases would be a distinct criticism of his papacy.

While his predecessor had been acclaimed for his outreach and unity, Benedict bore the brunt of intense criticism over the Church’s handling of sex abuse cases although he was the first pope to formally apologise to Catholics for sex abuse of priests and bishops in a 2010 letter to Irish Catholics.

However he sought to maintain the confidentiality of internal church investigations into accusations made against priests, a move which was construed by some as promoting a coverup.

He would face allegations in 2022 of mishandling four abuse cases as Archbishop of Munich, for which he expressed shame and asked for forgiveness.

His unwavering faith,deep conviction and towering intellect will always be linked to the scourge of clerical sex abuse and his abdication.