By Cindy Wooden and Jamie O’Brien
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference President and Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB says Pope Benedict XVI will long be remembered fondly in Australia as the Pontiff who led young people from around the globe in prayer at World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008.
Pope Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, led the Church from April 2005 until February 2013, becoming the first Pope in centuries to resign.
He had earlier served as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of the Vatican’s most influential departments, for more than two decades.
He died Saturday 31 December at the age of 95, nearly 10 years after leaving the papacy to retire to what he said would be a life of prayer and study.
“From his time as an expert adviser – or peritus – at the Second Vatican Council onwards, there was no question that Joseph Ratzinger was a major figure within the Church around the world,” Archbishop Costelloe said.
“His papacy will be remembered as one of rich teaching, including his encyclicals on love, hope and truth, as well as his book series Jesus of Nazareth, and for important reforms in areas like liturgy and in the handling of child sexual abuse.”
A close collaborator of St John Paul II and the theological expert behind many of his major teachings and gestures, Pope Benedict came to the papacy after 24 years heading the doctrinal congregation’s work of safeguarding Catholic teaching on faith and morals, correcting the work of some Catholic theologians and ensuring the theological solidity of the documents issued by other Vatican offices.
As pope, he continued writing as a theologian, but also made historically important gestures to Catholics who had difficulty accepting all of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, particularly about the liturgy.
His papacy, which began when he was 78, was extremely busy for a man who already had a pacemaker and who had wanted to retire to study, write and pray when he turned 75. He used virtually every medium at his disposal – books and Twitter, sermons and encyclicals – to catechise the faithful on the foundational beliefs and practices of Christianity, ranging from the sermons of St. Augustine to the sign of the cross.
Pope Benedict was the first pope to meet with victims of clerical sexual abuse. He clarified church laws to expedite cases and mandated that bishops’ conferences put in place stringent norms against abuse.
Although he did not expect to travel much, he ended up making 24 trips to six continents and three times presided over World Youth Day mega-gatherings: in Germany in 2005, Australia in 2008, and Spain in 2011.
While still in his 30s, he served as an influential adviser during the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, and as pope, he made it a priority to correct what he saw as overly expansive interpretations of Vatican II in favour of readings that stressed the council’s continuity with the church’s millennial traditions.
Under his oversight, the Vatican continued to highlight the church’s moral boundaries on issues such as end-of-life medical care, marriage and homosexuality.
But Benedict’s message to society at large focused less on single issues and more on the risk of losing the basic relationship between the human being and the Creator.
Surprising those who had expected a by-the-book pontificate from a man who had spent so many years as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal official, Pope Benedict emphasised that Christianity was a religion of love and not a religion of rules.
The German-born pontiff did not try to match the popularity of St John Paul, but the millions of people who came to see him in Rome and abroad came to appreciate his smile, his frequent ad-libs and his ability to speak from the heart.
Some of Pope Benedict’s most memorable statements came when he applied simple Gospel values to social issues such as the protection of human life, the environment and economics. When the global financial crisis worsened in 2008, for example, the then Pope Benedict insisted that financial institutions must put people before profits.
He also reminded people that money and worldly success are passing realities, saying: “Whoever builds his life on these things – on material things, on success, on appearances – is building on sand.”
He consistently warned the West that unless its secularised society rediscovered religious values, it could not hope to engage in real dialogue with Muslims and members of other religious traditions.
In his encyclicals and in his books on Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict honed that message, asking readers to discover the essential connections between sacrificial love, works of charity, a dedication to the truth and the Gospel of Christ.