Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI dies at age 95

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has died at the age of 95, the Vatican announced.

His death on Saturday came days after Pope Francis had asked for prayers for his predecessor, saying he was “very sick”.

The Holy See Press Office said Benedict, the first German pope in 1,000 years, died at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery, which he had chosen as his residence after resigning in 2013.

His body would lie in state from Monday in Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican said.

Francis will lead the funeral, to be held in St Peter’s Square on January 5. The ceremony is set to start at 9:30 am (0830 GMT).

The Vatican has been vague about what ailed Benedict, saying only that his worsening health was due to his advanced age.

For nearly 25 years, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict was the powerful head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, then known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Conservatives in the church have looked to the former pope as their standard bearer and some ultra-traditionalists even refused to acknowledge Francis as a legitimate pontiff.

They have criticised Francis for his more welcoming approach to members of the LGBTQ+ community and to Catholics who divorced and remarried outside the church, saying both were undermining traditional values.

Alberto Tonini, an historian at the University of Florence, told Al Jazeera that Benedict was more influential as a scholar and theologist, rather than a leader.

“He was not very comfortable speaking to a large audience or acting as a political leader. He was a thinker, a philosopher – and he maintained his (scholarly) activities during the eight years of his papacy,” Tonini said.

Legacy

Like his predecessor John Paul, Benedict made reaching out to Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as pope was a letter to Rome’s Jewish community and he became the second pope in history, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue.

In his 2011 book, Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Christ, explaining biblically and theologically why there was no basis in scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death.

However, as pope he also came under fire for a string of public relations controversies, and a perceived lack of charisma.

Pope Benedict XVI looks on during his visit at Rome's main synagogue
Pope Benedict XVI looks on during his visit to Rome’s main synagogue in 2010 [File: Osservatore Romano/Reuters]

Most importantly, as an ever-growing number of victims spoke out about their abuse, mostly as children, at the hands of priests, he was criticised for his failure to act decisively to end church cover-ups.

Before his election as pope, Benedict led the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, once known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, giving him the ultimate responsibility to investigate abuse cases.

He became the first pontiff to apologise for the scandals that emerged around the world, expressing “deep remorse” and meeting with victims in person.

In 2010, he admitted that the church “did not act quickly or firmly enough to take the necessary action” on an issue that severely tarnished its image.

Tributes pour in

The leader and spiritual head of the Anglican church said Benedict “in his life and ministry … directed people to Christ”.

The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wrote on Twitter: “I join with Pope Francis and all the Catholic Church in mourning his death.”

“May he rest in Christ’s peace and rise in glory with all the Saints.”

Meanwhile, Italian President Sergio Mattarella said the death of Benedict was a cause for grief for the entire country.

Mattarella said that “his sweetness and his wisdom had benefited our community and the entire international community”.

The president said that Benedict “interpreted with finesse the reasons of dialogue, of peace, of the dignity of the person, as well as the supreme interests of religions”.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the German-born pope a “formative figure of the Catholic Church”.

Scholz said on Twitter Saturday that “Benedict was a special church leader for many, not just in this country”.

“The world is losing a formative figure of the Catholic Church, a combative personality and a wise theologian,” he added.