Church bells tolled across Germany on Saturday as leaders across the country paid their respects to Benedict XVI – the first German to be pope in decades but whose succession in his homeland has been disputed.
“As a ‘German’ Pope Benedict XVI was a special church leader for many, not only in this country,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in statement on Twitter. “The world is losing a formative figure of the Catholic Church, a fighting figure and a wise theologian. My thoughts are with Pope Francis.”
In Munich, Archbishop Cardinal Reinhard Marx, say a prayer in honor of Benedict. “The venerable Pope Benedict XVI is dead and we mourn him: he trusted You, he lived with You, he sought You. Lead him now to eternal life and give him the joy of resurrection.”
Born in 1927 as Josef Ratzinger, in the Bavarian village Marktl am Inn, the future Benedict XVI grew up during World War II and as a teenager was enrolled in the Hitler Youth, as was mandatory at the time. But these were not his years under Nazi rule – which took a course largely common to Germans of his generation – as far as his role in dealing with the sexual abuse scandals in the church that dogged his legacy in Germany.
In early 2022, the retired pope, who resigned as head of the world Catholic church in 2013, admitted to providing false information to a German inquiry into clerical sexual abuse, while strongly denying any wrongdoing or intent to mislead on his part.
In a written statement to the inquiry, he said he did not remember attending a meeting with local authorities in 1980 to discuss a priest suspected of pedophilia. Yet Benedict reversed that position days after reports emerged accusing him during his time as archbishop of Munich, from 1977 to 1982, of bad examination of the affairs of four priests accused of child sexual abuse. Reports say his denial of attending the meeting is not credible.
In response, Benedict asked for forgiveness for “abuses and mistakes” under his watch, but said the discrepancy in his testimony was an honest mistake introduced during editing.
The president of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Georg Betzing, described Benedict on Saturday as an “impressive theologian” and an “experienced shepherd”. But Bishop Betzing also acknowledged problems in Benedict’s handling of abuse cases as archbishop. “He asked forgiveness from those affected and yet the questions remained unanswered,” the bishop said.
Germany’s largely ceremonial President Frank-Walter Steinmeier issued a statement paying tribute to Benedict, citing in particular his ability to make his religious teachings accessible to all faiths. Mr. Steinmeier also raised the issue of sexual abuse in the church.
Benedict “was confronted with the depressing problem of global sexual violence and its systematic cover-up,” the president wrote. “He had a special responsibility here. Benedict knew the great suffering of the victims and the enormous damage to the credibility of the Church.
On social media, the dean of Cologne Cathedral posted videos of “Fat Pete,” the church’s largest bell, ringing in Benedict’s honor. From Munich, clergy released a video of the funeral bell ringing at St. Michael’s Church. And across Bavaria, Benedict’s predominantly Catholic homeland, local leaders and state parties mourned his death.
“We mourn the death of our Bavarian pope,” said Markus Söder, the governor, adding: “With him, society loses a convincing representative of the Catholic Church and one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.”
“He gave strength and direction to a lot of people,” Mr. Söder said. “At the same time, however, he had to face the responsibility of difficult phases in his ministry.”
In Berlin, the German parliament announced that mourning flags would be flown at the parliament building, noting in a statement that Benedict had been there as a guest 11 years ago. “Never before has a pope spoken before an elected German parliament,” the statement said.
In the German news media, some took issue with a famous headline from the country’s largest daily newspaper, Bild, which in 2005 hailed Benedict’s elevation by saying, “We are the pope!On Saturday, at least two news outlets offered a variant: “We were the pope.”
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