Pope Benedict XVI: Timeline of a Pontiff

Regarded as a steady pair of hands when elected, his papacy was a time of controversies

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A close ally of the long-reigning Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI was the first German pope in 1,000 years and, by retiring almost a decade before his death, Benedict bequeathed an unprecedented situation of two living bishops of Rome.

He was elected on April 19, 2005, after serving nearly 25 years as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the heart of the church's bureaucracy.

Despite his reputation as a steady force and safe pair of hands, the papacy was regularly caught up in controversies. For Benedict, this was a deeply arduous experience.

Benedict produced more than 60 books between 1963, when he was a priest, and 2013, when he resigned. “In reality I am more of a professor, a person who reflects and meditates on spiritual questions,” Benedict said after his resignation, which led to the election of Pope Francis in 2013.

Despite this, at an earlier stage of his career he was referred to as God's Rottweiler for his tough disciplinary decisions.

The first serious backlash during his time on the papal throne came in 2006, when he visited his Bavarian hometown, only to spark protests from the Muslim world with a speech quoting a derogatory comment about Islam from a 14th century Byzantine emperor.

After it became clear his lecture had antagonised Muslims, Benedict said he was “deeply sorry” about reaction to his speech, which he said was misunderstood.

Months later, he undertook a papal trip to Turkey and prayed with Istanbul’s grand mufti facing Makkah at the city’s Sultan Ahmet mosque.

In 2008, Benedict changed a Latin prayer for Good Friday services by traditionalist Catholics, deleting a reference to Jews and their “blindness” but still calling for them to accept Jesus.

The following year, he angered Jews by rehabilitating a Holocaust denier as he lifted the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist bishops.

It was the long litany of sexual abuses by the clerics that bore down on his papacy. In Benedict's defence, he set up a more rigourous process than allowed by his predecessor.

He disciplined the late Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Catholic order the Legionaries of Christ and one of the Church's most notorious predators. The Vatican under John Paul II had failed to take action against Maciel despite evidence of his crimes.

A prayer bench featuring a photo of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at St Oswald Church in Marktl, Bavaria, southern Germany, home town of the late pontiff. AFP

The anger over the legacy of abuse spilt over in countries that were bastions of the faith. In 2011, the Vatican recalled its ambassador to the Republic of Ireland following a rebuke of the Holy See by the Irish Parliament following a report that accused church authorities of covering up sexual abuse.

Throughout 2012, Benedict's papacy was shaken by a scandal referred to as Vatileaks, in which leaked documents show infighting among Benedict's aides and general dysfunction at the heart of the Curia, the church's central administration.

In February 2013, Benedict announced his resignation, saying he no longer had the physical and mental strength to run the church. He later moved to a former convent inside the Vatican gardens, with his secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein.

As an uncompromising theological conservative and choosing to continue to wear papal white, Benedict became something of a rallying point for traditionists.

Pope Francis, a Jesuit imbued with the social justice and folk traditions of the Latin American church, cut a very different figure and his opponents rallied to an idealised image of his predecessor.

Updated: December 31, 2022, 10:34 AM
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