Pope Benedict XVI: Theologian, Pope and Man of God

The SMA community in Blackrock Road, Cork, celebrated Mass for the happy repose of the soul of Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI on the day of his burial in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Fr Michael McCabe SMA was the Chief Celebrant. The following is the reflection Fr Michael gave during that Mass.


On this the day of Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI’s funeral, it is appropriate to thank God for his long and fruitful life, to acknowledge his legacy, and pray him home to the Lord whom he loved and served so well. 

Joseph Ratzinger was born on the 16th of April 1927 into a devout Catholic family from Bavaria, Germany. From a very young age he wanted to become a priest. His formation and studies were interrupted when he and his brother, George, were called to serve in the German Army during World War II. For some months he was also a prisoner in an American prisoner-of-war camp. At the end of the war he resumed his theological studies and was ordained along with George on the 29th June, 1951.


An academically inclined and serious student, Joseph continued his theological studies after ordination and obtained a doctorate in theology two years later for a thesis on St Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church. Four years later, he qualified as a university professor. Augustine and Bonaventure were his main theological mentors. A gifted and popular lecturer, Fr Ratzinger taught in several German Universities (Freising, Bonn, Munster, Tϋbingen and Regensburg) for the next 20 years. He would go on to become one of the leading theologians of the 20th century.

While still in his 30’s, Fr Ratzinger made a major contribution to Vatican II as theological advisor to Cardinal Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, who wanted to see change in the Church. Though cautious by nature, the young theologian also wanted change and he stoutly defended the freedom of theologians to engage in theological research. However, following his experience of the Student Revolts in Germany in 1968, he changed his tune, became fearful of revolutionary ideas, and applied his intellectual prowess more to defending the traditional faith of the Church than to updating it and making it relevant. Nevertheless, he made a huge contribution to theology. He is the author of over 50 books,  including Introduction to Christianity (translated into 20 languages), and more recently, Jesus of Nazareth (3 vols). In these popular and eminently readable works, he communicates profound ideas with great clarity of expression and simplicity of language – a rare quality among theologians. He remained a theologian all this life up to, and including, his final years in retirement.

Archbishop of Munich (1977-1981)

Despite his preference for the academic life, Fr Ratzinger found himself reluctantly drawn onto the public stage of Church leadership. In March 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Munich and bestowed the cardinal’s hat on him. His episcopal motto, ‘Co-workers of the Truth’, highlights his commitment to expounding and protecting the truth of the Catholic faith. As bishop he was noted for his concern with doctrinal orthodoxy, a concern that led Pope John Paul II in 1981 to appoint him Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. 

Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005)

For the next 24 years, Cardinal Ratzinger became the right hand man of Pope John Paul II. In this role he was uncompromising in his defence of the Faith and unrelenting in his pursuit of theologians he considered to have crossed the line. Kung, Boff, Dupuis and many other theologians were brought to book. While upholding the teaching of Vatican II, he was strongly opposed to liberal interpretations of its teaching. He coined the phrase the ‘Dictatorship of Relativism’  to characterise the self-referential spirit of the times, to which (in his judgement) a number of theologians had succumbed. In the interpretation of the texts of the Council, he argued for a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ rather than one of rupture. During these years, he also chaired the Commission charged with producing the new and excellent Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) as well as collaborating in the writing of many of the texts of of John Paul II.

Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013)

In 2005, aged 78, Cardinal Ratzinger was chosen, much to his surprise, as  successor to Pope John Paul II, and took the name of Benedict XVI. He was the 265th pope in the history of the Church. This was not a burden he desired or wanted but he accepted it as the will of his Lord and Master. As pope, he struggled to get to grips with the challenges of reforming the Church, especially the Roman Curia, though he was aware that reform was needed. A teacher more than an administrator, he focused on nurturing the faith of his flock through his writings rather than by his actions. He wrote 3 inspiring encyclicals, God is Love, Saved by Hope and Love in Truth, which are models of clarity of thought and simplicity of expression. They can be read for spiritual nourishment as well as intellectual formation.

While many people have the impression that Pope Benedict was a ‘stay at home’ Pope, during his 8 year pontificate he made 24 apostolic trips outside Italy to six continents (including two to Africa – visiting Cameroon, Angola and the Republic of Benin). He presided over the Second Special Synodal Assembly for Africa, the theme of which was ‘The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace’. The promotion of peace, not just in Africa but throughout the world, was a dominant concern of his pontificate.


Joseph Ratzinger was a shy, soft spoken, gentle person – very much at odds with the ‘Rottweiler’ image of him presented in the media. I had occasion to meet him – by accident – when I was a student in Rome and found him friendly, courteous and a good listener.

He described himself as ‘a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord’. That indeed he was.

As Pope he never projected himself, never played the crowd nor sought approval. What was important for him was the office, not the person holding it. It was surely this clear separation of himself from the office of Pope, that enabled him to take the extraordinary and unprecedented step or resigning when, at the age of 85, he felt unable to bear the burden of the office any longer. He was the first pope in 600 years to take such a step. That decision surely took courage, humility and clear-sighted acceptance of reality.  

He was, in truth, a good and holy man who served the Church well. As we remember and celebrate his life and bid him a final farewell, let us strive to reflect in our own lives something of the beauty and attractiveness of the vision of faith that inspired him.

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