Critics of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who in 2005 became Pope Benedict XVI and who shocked the Catholic Church by resigning eight years later, called him the “Panzer Cardinal” or “God’s Rottweiler” after the pugnacious dog breed.
But those who knew the pope emeritus, who died Saturday at age 95, said the sobriquets didn’t fit the quiet, retiring scholar whose idea of a fun evening was dining alone at a restaurant in Rome with a just-purchased book as his dinner companion.
“I didn’t know him well, but I know a lot of people who did know him, and if anything, he was very gentle, very soft-spoken, a bookish academic,” Bishop Robert Barron of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota, said in an interview shortly before Benedict’s death.
Bishop Barron, who also heads the evangelistic Word on Fire ministry, said bishops who visited Rome for annual meetings “almost to a man would say the best [cardinal] to deal with was Ratzinger because of his kindness and also his acuity of mind that he was able to listen to all these perspectives and present a synthesizing view.”
Benedict, the bishop said, “was this very balanced, very reconciling nuanced figure, and I think gave a definitive interpretation of the [Second Vatican] council. I would emphasize his personal kindness and his holiness of life.”
Benedict’s emphasis on Jesus as the incarnation of the “logos,” or word, of God led to his advocacy of reason as the means by which “we can know certain moral and intellectual and aesthetic truths.”
According to Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, head of the Arlington, Virginia, diocese, the late pope was a welcoming figure.
Bishop Burbidge recalled that Benedict’s greeting stood out during his periodic visits to Rome for consultations with church leaders.
“I always remember just his gentleness of, you know, when you would go up to speak with him as a bishop,” Bishop Burbidge told The Washington Times in an interview Saturday. “It was like you were the only one in the room. He was looking right in the eye with a beautiful smile and just offered words of encouragement and thanks for the ministry and assurance of [his] prayers. I left after speaking with him very uplifted and inspired.”
Bishop Burbidge said Benedict was “probably one of the greatest theologians ever to be elected” to the chair of St. Peter, and he “shocked the world” with his first encyclical.
Titled “God is Love,” that “letter to the faithful,” Bishop Burbidge said, “was a beautiful encyclical showing who he really is, how much he wanted people to know that they were loved by God in all of our weaknesses [and] limitations.”
The pastoral letter, the bishop said, “really dismantled some of the perceptions that were out there.”
According to Bishop Burbidge, Benedict “was not so much the ‘enforcer’ as he was the one to invite people to enter into this loving relationship and friendship with the Lord.”
Unassuming cardinal did not flaunt his position
Both Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr of the Cincinnati Archdiocese and Princeton University law professor Robert P. George recall Benedict as an unassuming leader who did not flaunt his position.
“During my years as general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the early 1990s, I would frequently travel to Rome, and oftentimes I would see then-Cardinal Ratzinger making his daily treks across St. Peter’s Square from his apartment to his office. He would mingle with the people in the square while garbed in a simple black cassock. There was no indication that he was a cardinal. Often, he was asked by groups to serve as its photographer,” Archbishop Schnurr said in a statement.
The archbishop said Cardinal Ratzinger took the photos “willingly and with a generous smile. As far as the group members were concerned, they had just been assisted by one of the local priests – and Cardinal Ratzinger seemed content to leave them with that understanding. I often wonder today if any of those tourists know their photographer moved on to become Pope Benedict XVI.”
Around the same time, in 1991, Mr. George — then a young professor not yet tenured — addressed a bishops’ meeting sponsored by the National Catholic Bioethics Center at which Cardinal Ratzinger was also a speaker.
The cardinal “sat in the front row in the middle and kindly listened attentively,” Mr. George recalled on Facebook.
After the lecture, he said, “Cardinal Ratzinger immediately stepped forward to shake my hand and offer warm words of encouragement and congratulation.”
But as other bishops came forward to speak with Mr. George, Cardinal Ratzinger “stepped slightly back” and listened to the conversation for about 15 minutes. In an email to The Times, Mr. George said that was his “first personal contact” with the cardinal.
“Nearly 20 years after our first meeting, I met him again when he kindly received me at the Vatican and thanked me for my work in bioethics and philosophy of law,” Mr. George said. “Again I was struck by his humility and, let me add, the gentleness of his manner,” he said.
Both as a cardinal and later as pope, Mr. George said, Benedict “made sure that there could be no doubt that fundamental Catholic beliefs, however unpopular, would not — and indeed could not — change.”
He said he would remember Benedict “as a humble and gentle man who, like the humble and gentle savior he faithfully served, spoke the truth in love with clarity.”
Benedict an environmentalist who affected the church
“One of the things that I don’t think Pope Benedict gets much credit for is the work that he did on ecology,” said Lucia Ann Silecchia, a law professor at the Catholic University of America.
She said Benedict addressed the “intersection” of environmental law and Catholic social thinking in a 2008 conference at the Vatican and said his writings about ecology “will age well.”
Ms. Silecchia, who is also a scholar with the Institute for Human Ecology, said Benedict’s encyclicals went to the root causes of societal issues.
“What I see in Pope Benedict is rather than addressing specific issues, his background as a theologian in [his] three encyclicals has really come through, not at addressing discrete social questions but in diagnosing the root of those problems,” she said.
Ms. Silecchia said Benedict’s common theme was that “the idea that the lack of love of God, love of neighbor, love of truth lies at the root of so many of our social, economic and political ills.”
She said her “prediction is that people will be talking about those long after we start talking about more of the ‘hot takes’” seen in some discussions about Benedict’s pontificate.
A.C. Wimmer, editor-in-chief of Germany’s CNA Deutsch news agency, declared “Benedict changed my life” when asked about the personal impact the late pope emeritus had.
Mr. Wimmer said he “discovered” Benedict “by accident” while living in Australia.
“Channel-surfing on a rainy day, I came across this awkward-looking, white-dressed man on the TV, talking to an enthused crowd attending World Youth Day in Sydney, where I was living at that time. I turned up the volume, and his words touched my mind and soul,” he said via email.
“Though Benedict did not convince or convert me, an atheist and trained philosopher, his words did lead me to seriously look at the Catholic intellectual tradition — and my own life. Years later, by God’s grace, I converted to Catholicism, as did my wife,” he said.
Mr. Wimmer said the current “Synodal Way” process of the Catholic Church in Germany “is a debating event” that seeks to “change the Church’s teaching on morality, including sexuality. He said it does not reflect on Benedict’s teaching of Catholic doctrine.
The pope emeritus “deeply cared about — and thoroughly diagnosed — the crisis of the Catholic Church in Germany and elsewhere in the 20th century and beyond. He sought to formulate a response to it, which inspired countless Catholics, especially at the grassroots level,” Mr. Wimmer said.
Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press in San Francisco, which published books by Benedict XVI before and after his elevation to pope, said the late pontiff valued church doctrine.
“At the core of his identity, he is a faithful committed Catholic who lived through almost three-quarters of the 20th century and well into the first quarter of the 21st century,” he said in a telephone interview.
“There are different facets to the man, he was someone who engaged in a dialogue with key figures in the modern world, [which is] not something you typically associate with somebody who is an arch-conservative or some kind of staunchly rigid personality,” Mr. Brumley said.
The publisher predicted Benedict will often be cited in the decades to come.
“As someone who is at the highest levels of church authority and pastoral responsibility, he sought to continue the church’s renewal as envisioned by the Second Vatican Council, and someone who brought a vast understanding of the various currents of the modern world, on how to present the gospel to people of his time. So I think he will be quoted both as a great theologian and as a great pope.”