A soft-spoken intellectual and scholar, Benedict XVI was the head of the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics for eight years, sandwiched between the charismatic Pope (now Saint) John Paul II (1978-2005), one of the longest papacies in history, and the reformist agenda of Pope Francis, who began serving in 2013.
As a younger cleric, Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, experienced the opening of the Catholic Church to the modern world that was set in motion by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which he attended as a theological adviser.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s theological watchdog, he embraced orthodoxy, moving against dissenting theologians and speaking out against homosexuality, birth control and abortion, and the liberation theology movement in Latin America.
As pope, he witnessed the growing secularization of society, alongside growing disenchantment among the faithful with an institution seen as being unwilling, or unable, to give a forceful response to the clerical abuse scandal that has roiled the church in the past few decades.
He tried to address that crisis, becoming the first pope to meet with victims. He apologized for the abuse and excommunicated offending priests. But he was criticized for not going far enough and for failing to punish those who covered up for abusers.
Benedict XVI will most likely be remembered for resigning at 85, when he realized that because of his age, his mental and physical strengths were “no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of leading the church. He was not the first pope to resign, but it had not happened for nearly 600 years. His decision set a precedent that even Francis has pondered, telling a Spanish newspaper this month that he signed a resignation letter earlier on in his pontificate with a pledge to step down should he no longer be able to fulfill his duties.
Here is a selection of images from Benedict’s long life.
Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber blessing Joseph Ratzinger during his ordination to the priesthood in the Freising Cathedral in southern Germany in 1951. Father Ratzinger, 54 years later, would become Pope Benedict XVI.
Taking office as archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, shortly before he became a cardinal.
Pope John Paul II with Cardinal Ratzinger in Vatican City in 1979. The cardinal succeeded John Paul in 2005, and beatified his predecessor in 2011.
Cardinal Ratzinger, then the archbishop of Munich and Freising, saying farewell to worshipers at Munich Marienplatz in 1982. He was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and left the city for the Vatican.
Cardinal Ratzinger at the Vatican in 1997.
Priests from the Pontifical North American College in Rome cheered on April 10, 2005, as the newly named Pope Benedict XVI walked onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City to greet the crowds in the square.
Benedict, flanked by cardinals, greeting the large crowd gathered at St. Peter’s on the day he was picked to be the 265th pope.
Bishop Piero Marini adjusting the pallium, a collar of lamb’s wool and part of the badge of office, of Benedict during his inaugural Mass on April 24, 2005, in St. Peter’s Square.
Benedict arriving for a prayer during a visit to Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, in 2006.
The pope at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in 2006. The visit made him the second Roman Catholic pontiff to enter a mosque.
At a 2007 Mass in Brazil at São Paulo Cathedral with a poster heralding Benedict’s visit.
Pope Benedict XVI arriving in Washington for his pastoral visit to the United States in 2008.
Benedict in New York City, departing Yankee Stadium in the “popemobile,” after celebrating Mass there in 2008.
The pope praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2009 during an eight-day tour of the Middle East.
At his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2009.
Queen Elizabeth II and Benedict greeting schoolchildren outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the queen’s official residence in Edinburgh, in 2010.
Crowds gathered to hear the pope celebrate Mass at the Plaza de la Revolucíon in Havana in 2012.
Benedict announcing his resignation at a gathering of cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 11, 2013. He was the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.
Benedict appeared on the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, for the last time as pope on Feb. 28, 2013.
Pope Francis welcomed Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as he returned to the Vatican from Castel Gandolfo in May 2013, beginning an unprecedented era of a retired pontiff living side by side with a reigning one inside the Vatican gardens.
From left (seated): Horst Seehofer, then Bavaria’s state premier, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, his brother Georg Ratzinger and others drinking beer on Benedict’s 90th birthday at the Vatican in 2017.
Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI during a ceremony to elevate Roman Catholic prelates to the rank of cardinal in August at the Vatican.
Introductory text by Elisabetta Povoledo.