Updated Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 07:26 AM
VATICAN CITY —
On Monday, April 4, 2005, a priest walked up to the Renaissance palazzo housing the Vatican’s doctrine department and asked the doorman to call the official in charge: It was the first day of business after Pope John Paul II had died, and the cleric wanted to get back to work.
The office’s No. 2, Archbishop Angelo Amato, answered the phone and was stunned. This was no ordinary priest. It was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his boss, who under the Vatican’s arcane rules had technically lost his job when John Paul died.
“It tells me of the great humility of the man, the great sense of duty, but also the great awareness that we are here to do a job,” said Bishop Charles Scicluna, who worked with Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI, inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
When Benedict, 85, flies off into retirement by helicopter on Thursday, he will leave behind a Roman Catholic Church beset by sex scandals, internal divisions and dwindling numbers.
But he can count on a solid legacy: While his resignation was his most significant act, Benedict — in a quieter way — also set the church back on a conservative, tradition-minded path.
He was guided by the conviction that many of the ills afflicting the church could be traced to a misreading of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He insisted the 1962-65 meetings that brought the church into the modern era were not a radical break from the past, as portrayed by many liberals, but a continuation of the best traditions of the 2,000-year-old church.
Benedict was the teacher-pope, a theology professor who turned his Wednesday general audiences into master classes about the Catholic faith and the history, saints and sinners that contributed to it.
In his teachings, he sought to boil Christianity down to its essential core.
Considered by many to be the greatest living theologian, he wrote more than 65 books, stretching from the classic “Introduction to Christianity” in 1968 to the final installment of his triptych on “Jesus of Nazareth” last year — considered by some to be his most important contribution to the church. In between he produced the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” essentially a how-to guide on being a Catholic.
He spent the bulk of his early career in the classroom, as a student and then professor of dogma and fundamental theology at universities in Bonn, Muenster, Tuebingen and Regensburg, Germany.
“His classrooms were crowded,” recalled the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a theology student of Ratzinger’s at the University of Regensburg from 1972-74, and now the English-language publisher of his books. “I don’t recall him having notes,” Fessio said.
It’s a style that he kept for 40 years. “If you hear him give a sermon, he’s speaking not from notes, but you can write it down and print it,” Fessio said. “Every comma is there. Every pause.”
Oldest elected pope
Benedict never wanted to be pope and he didn’t take easily to the job. Elected April 19, 2005, after one of the shortest conclaves in history, Benedict was, at 78, the oldest pope elected in 275 years and the first German in nearly a millennium.
Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, recalled that in the early days, Benedict used to greet crowds with an awkward victory gesture “as if he were an athlete.”
“At some point someone told him that wasn’t a very papal gesture,” Vian said. Benedict changed course, opting for an open-armed embrace or twinkling of his fingers on an outstretched hand as a way of connecting with the crowd.
“No one is born a pope,” Vian said. “You have to learn to be a pope.”
He seemed surprised by the warm reception he received and the harsh criticism when things went wrong, as they did when he lifted the excommunication of a bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust-denier. For a theologian who for decades had worked toward reconciliation between Catholics and Jews, the outrage was fierce and painful.
Benedict was also burdened by what he called the “filth” of the church: the sins and crimes of its priests. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict saw firsthand the scope of sex abuse as early as the 1980s, when he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Vatican legal department to let him remove abusive priests quickly.
But it was 2001 before he stepped in, ordering all abuse cases sent to his office for review. “We used to discuss the cases on Fridays; he used to call it the Friday penance,” recalled Scicluna, Ratzinger’s sex-crimes prosecutor from 2002-2012. To this day, Benedict hasn’t sanctioned a single bishop for covering up abuse.
He also gets poor grades from liberal Catholics, who felt abandoned by a pope who seemed to roll back the clock on the modernizing changes of Vatican II and launched a crackdown on nuns, deemed to have strayed too far from his doctrinal orthodoxy.
Bitterness seemed forgotten as Benedict bid an emotional farewell Wednesday in his last general audience. He told the estimated 150,000 people who packed St. Peter’s Square that he had had “moments of joy and light, but also moments ... of turbulent seas and rough winds, as has occurred in the history of the church, when it seemed like the Lord was sleeping.”
Franco Origlia / Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful as he arrives in St. Peter's Square for his final general audience on Wednesday at the Vatican. He has been the leader of the Catholic Church for eight years.