Pope Benedict XVI is shown in side-by-side images from 2005 and 2013. At left is the pope in a photo taken May 4, 2005, about two weeks after his election. At right is an image taken Feb. 6 at the Vatican.
Nancy Phelan Wiechec, Paul Haring/cns
VATICAN CITY — During his almost eight-year pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI impressed the world as a teacher, guiding Catholics to the sources of the faith and urging modern society not to turn its back on God.
Citing his age and diminishing energy, the 85-year-old pope announced Feb. 11 that he would be resigning effective Feb. 28 and would devote the rest of his life to prayer.
As pastor of the universal church, he used virtually every medium at his disposal — books and Twitter, sermons and encyclicals — to catechize the faithful on the foundational beliefs and practices of Christianity, ranging from the sermons of St. Augustine to the sign of the cross.
Having served in his 30s as an influential adviser during the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, he made it a priority as pope to correct what he saw as overly expansive interpretations of Vatican II in favor 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 the pope'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.
He consistently warned the West that unless its secularized society rediscovered religious values, it could not hope to engage in real dialogue with Islamic and other religious cultures.
In his encyclicals and in his books on "Jesus of Nazareth," the pope 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.
The German-born pontiff did not try to match the popularity of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, 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.
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, in Australia in 2008, and in Spain in 2011.
Talking about aging last March when he met the 85-year-old Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana, Pope Benedict told him, "Yes, I'm old, but I can still carry out my duties."
On a historic visit to the United States in 2008, the pope brought his own identity into clearer focus for Americans. He set forth a moral challenge on issues ranging from economic justice to abortion. He also took church recognition of the priestly sex abuse scandal to a new level, expressing his personal shame at what happened and praying with the victims.
The pope met three times with former U.S. President George W. Bush, including a formal visit to the White House, and the two leaders found wide areas of agreement on pro-life and family issues. When President Barack Obama was elected, the pontiff sent him a warmly worded telegram and a promise of his prayers, but when they met at the Vatican the next year, the pope spoke clearly about the church's objections to the administration's policies on several life issues, including abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
Pope Benedict was 78 and in apparent good health when elected April 19, 2005, but was said to have told his fellow cardinals that his would not be a long papacy like that of his predecessor. In an interview with the German author Peter Seewald in 2010, Pope Benedict said: "If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign."
As inevitable as his election seemed after Blessed John Paul died in 2005, his path to the papacy was long and indirect.
Joseph Ratzinger was born April 16, 1927, in the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn, the third and youngest child of a police officer, Joseph Sr., and his wife, Maria. Young Joseph joined his brother, Georg, at a minor seminary in 1939.
Like other young students, he was automatically enrolled in the Hitler Youth program, but soon stopped going to meetings. During World War II, he was conscripted into the army, and in the spring of 1945 he deserted his unit and returned home, spending a few months in an Allied prisoner-of-war camp. He returned to the seminary late in 1945 and was ordained six years later, along with his brother.
In a meeting with young people in 2006, the pope said witnessing the brutality of the Nazi regime helped convince him to become a priest. But he also had to overcome some doubts, he said. For one thing, he asked himself whether he "could faithfully live celibacy" his entire life. He also recognized that his real leanings were toward theology and wondered whether he had the qualities of a good pastor and the ability "to be simple with the simple people."
After a short stint as a parish priest, the future pope began a teaching career and built a reputation as one of the church's foremost theologians. At Vatican II, he made important contributions as a theological expert and embraced the council's early work. But he began to have misgivings about an emerging anti-Roman bias, the idea of a "church from below" run on a parliamentary model, and the direction of theological research in the church — criticism that would become even sharper in later years.
In 1977, Pope Paul VI named him archbishop of Munich and Freising, and four years later Pope John Paul called him to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he wielded great influence on issues such as liberation theology, dissent from church teachings and pressure for women's ordination. Serving in this role for nearly a quarter century, then-Cardinal Ratzinger earned a reputation in some quarters as a sort of grand inquisitor, seeking to stamp out independent thinking, an image belied by his passion for debate with thinkers inside and outside the church.
As the newly elected pope in 2005, he explained that he took the name Benedict to evoke the memory of Pope Benedict XV, a "courageous prophet of peace" during World War I, and said he wanted to place his ministry at the service of reconciliation and harmony among peoples.
Surprising those who had expected a by-the-book pontificate from a man who had spent more than 23 years as the Vatican's chief doctrinal official, Pope Benedict emphasized that Christianity was a religion of love and not a religion of rules.
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