Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who died on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, was an “old world gentleman,” recalled Msgr. Owen Campion, a priest of the Diocese of Nashville.
Msgr. Campion, a former editor of the Tennessee Register and a prominent member of the Catholic press in the United States, met Pope Emeritus Benedict several times while serving on the Pontifical Council of Social Communications in the early 2000s. He had been appointed by St. John Paul II and his term was renewed by Benedict.
“We would meet in Rome three or four times a year, and each time we met, we would meet with him,” Msgr. Campion said.
The members of the council would be introduced to the pope by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the president of the council. The pope “would greet each one of us individually,” Msgr. Campion said.
It was during one of those introductions that Pope Benedict provided “a great thrill for me,” Msgr. Campion said. After being presented to the pope, Msgr. Campion turned and began to walk away. Pope Benedict called after him, “Monsignor.”
“I said, ‘Yes, Holy Father.’ And he said, ‘Thank you for all you do for the Church.’ That was very thrilling,” Msgr. Campion said.
“He was a very courtly man, a very old world gentleman,” but not aloof, Msgr. Campion said of Benedict.
After the death of St. John Paul II in 2005, Msgr. Campion was in Rome as part of Our Sunday Visitor’s coverage of the pope’s funeral and the conclave to elect a new pope, which ended up being Pope Benedict.
“You never know how things go in the conclave,” the secret gathering of cardinals to elect a new pope, Msgr. Campion said, but the rumor was that Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “made a tremendous impression” with two homilies he gave, one at St. John Paul II’s funeral and another at the Mass to open the conclave. “They claimed it greatly impressed the cardinals.”
During his time as pope and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is responsible for promulgating and defending Roman Catholic doctrine, Benedict was involved in many controversies in the Church, Msgr. Campion noted.
“One issue was liberation theology in Latin America. Another was the radical right wing who wouldn’t accept any of the changes of the Second Vatican Council,” Msgr. Campion said.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then Cardinal Ratzinger criticized Marxist elements in liberationist thinking, including endorsement of class conflict and this-worldly utopianism.
As pope, Benedict extended a hand to the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which broke from the Church after the Second Vatican Council, but a long and intense dialogue with the group eventually broke down.
Pope Emeritus Benedict was “interpreted as being a traditionalist,” including regarding the liturgy, Msgr. Campion said. “He had a great affection for the music of the Latin Mass.” He celebrated Mass all over the world before vast congregations and he never used Latin. In 2007, Benedict widened permission to use the pre-Vatican II form of the Mass.
Another controversy surrounded his relations with Islam. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and other incidents of religious-inspired violence, Pope Benedict repeatedly condemned all violence committed in the name of God. During a lecture at Germany’s University of Regensburg in 2006, he quoted a Christian medieval emperor who said the prophet Muhammad had brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
“The Muslim world went up in fury,” Msgr. Campion recalled. Pope Benedict apologized that his words had offended Muslims, distancing himself from the text he had quoted. Soon after, he accepted the invitation of an international group of Muslim scholars and leaders to launch a new dialogue initiative, “The Common Word,” looking at teachings that Christians and Muslims share.
Pope Benedict instigated an investigation of women religious orders in the United states, “that was controversial in Rome and in this country,” Msgr. Campion said. The doctrinal congregation criticized the Leadership Council of Women Religious, the main leadership group of women religious in the United States, claiming it promoted “a prevalence of certain radical themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The women religious objected to that characterization of their work.
A Vatican program of oversight and reform of the group ended unexpectedly in 2015 after three years and Pope Benedict’s retirement. “The process sort of fizzled out,” Msgr. Campion said.
But the controversy that will most be associated with Pope Emeritus Benedict will be his efforts to address the clergy sex abuse crisis that has engulfed the United States, Australia, Ireland, England, and much of Europe over the last two decades, Msgr. Campion said.
Before the crisis erupted, the handling of such cases “was left to the individual diocese, really to the individual bishop,” Msgr. Campion said. As pope, St. John Paul II, at Cardinal Ratizinger’s urging, instituted several measures to address the issue from the Vatican, including assigning sex abuse cases to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
“He told someone I knew that he worked on those cases on Friday, and he considered it like Good Friday because it was so painful to read,” Msgr. Campion said.
Pope Emeritus Benedict’s biographer, Peter Seewald, told OSV News, “what is important is that Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, took measures to consistently investigate, punish the perpetrators, and make atonement to the victims. His great admonition and his great lament at the Way of the Cross on Good Friday 2005 remains unforgotten. There, he spoke about the filth in the Church, especially among priests. Before him, no one had addressed the problem so clearly.”
During his travels as pope, Benedict made a regular practice of visiting with victims of clergy sexual abuse and apologizing on behalf of the Church.
After his retirement, a report commissioned by the Church in Munich, alleged the pope emeritus, while serving as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, had mishandled cases of clergy sexual abuse. Benedict apologized for any “grievous faults” but denied any wrongdoing.
“There were several circumstances that would probably dominate history when it is written, one of them would be the sex abuse crisis,” Msgr. Campion said of Benedict’s legacy.
Growing up in Nazi Germany
Pope Emeritus Benedict’s early life was shaped by his childhood growing up in Nazi Germany, Msgr. Campion noted. The future pope’s father, Joseph, “was very anti-Hitler,” Msgr. Campion said. “That had to be kept in strictest secrecy.”
“He had lived through the holocaust as a bystander obviously. That was one of the points his father took exception with,” Msgr. Campion said. “He would have been in an atmosphere that would not have been accepting of the Hitler government.”
When the pope was a teen, the government had enacted a policy to eradicate anyone considered to have a disability, Msgr. Campion said. The pope’s cousin, who was the same age and had been born with Down’s syndrome, was one day taken away; his family never saw him again. “He would have witnessed that,” Msgr. Campion said.
The young Ratzinger was required to join the Hitler Youth but never attended any meetings and was later drafted into the German army. He didn’t see any combat and deserted. After the war, he served briefly as a prisoner of war.
Pope Emeritus Benedict later told a group of young people that his experience with the Nazis led him to the priesthood. After the war, he and his brother Georg attended the seminary and were ordained priests in 1951.
‘A brilliant mind’
As a young priest, the pope embarked on an academic career. “He was a prolific writer … a brilliant mind and a great theologian,” Msgr. Campion said. “At the time of the Second Vatican Council, he was considered one of the leading theologians of the council.”
“He was very loyal to the Second Vatican Council and Paul VI,” who implemented the many reforms of the council, Msgr. Campion said.
St. Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Munich and Freising in May 1977 and a month later inducted him into the College of Cardinals. St. John Paul II brought him to Rome in 1981 as the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
As pope, Benedict named a number of American bishops, including the late Bishop David Choby of Nashville, Msgr. Campion said.
“He certainly got along with Americans,” Msgr. Campion said. “In fact, when he was named pope, he named an American as his successor” as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, Msgr. Campion added.
“His contribution really was to spirituality and to theology,” Msgr. Campion said of Benedict’s legacy. “His encyclical on the love of God, his books on Jesus, his reflections, I would say that is what will stay with him in people’s memory.
“Of course the most dramatic thing that he did was to resign,” Msgr. Campion said. “He had lived through two papacies very much affected by old age, Paul VI and John Paul II. He said, in effect, ‘I will not put the Church through this again.’”
OSV News contributed to this report.