The Papal Resignation
Background and consequences of the still-stunning news

Pope Benedict XVI


On Ash Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his last public Mass as pope. It was an emotional moment in St. Peter’s Basilica, as the world continued to process the announcement and the Vatican made plans for the coming conclave to name a new pontiff. Father John Jay Hughes is a Church historian and priest of the St. Louis archdiocese, and author of the memoir No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace. A former student of Joseph Ratzinger, he helps make sense of the news and what’s to come this Lent.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Who is this man, Joseph Ratzinger, and what is he doing stepping aside as pope? 

FR. JOHN JAY HUGHES: Born April 16, 1927, as the second the son of a Francophile local policeman whose hatred of Nazism moved him to take premature retirement early in Hitler’s reign, Joseph Ratzinger grew up in a deeply pious Bavarian family. In his youth he became fascinated with the then-universal Latin and largely silent Mass, which he followed with growing interest in his Latin-German Missal. Drafted, like all German teenagers, into the Hitler Youth, Joseph found a sympathetic teacher who marked him “present” in the compulsory indoctrination classes, though he never attended. During World War II, this “most unmilitary of men,” as he describes himself in his only autobiographical work, Milestones, was forced to serve in an anti-aircraft unit. At war’s end, he simply walked away and tramped home on foot, luckier than other deserters whom he found hanged on wayside trees by Nazis still loyal to their Führer.

Soon joined by his older brother, Georg, back from military service in Italy and “brown from the Italian sun,” he embarked with him on theological study in Munich. Ratzinger records the aversion he and his classmates felt for the neo-scholastic theological manuals then in use, where they found everything labeled and mysteries reduced to formulas. “We were seekers,” he writes, explaining his early preference for the theology of St. Augustine over that of St. Thomas Aquinas (as presented in contemporary manuals for seminarians). Ratzinger’s thesis on the themes of the people and house of God in Augustine’s theology so impressed the faculty that they awarded him a doctorate in theology. Ordained priest with his brother Georg, Joseph served briefly in a parish before returning to academic study, culminating in a Habilitation (a kind of second doctorate qualifying the recipient for a professorial chair) on the reception of divine revelation in the theology of the medieval Franciscan St. Bonaventure.

Ratzinger taught successively at the German universities of Bonn, Münster, and Tübingen (where he was recruited by Hans Küng), and also the (then small and new) University of Regensburg. He served during all four sessions of Vatican II (196265) as theological adviser to the almost blind Cardinal Frings of Cologne, whose silvery, clear Latin diction endeared him to the Council Fathers. Wags said that Frings had listened to so much of Ratzinger’s theology that he had forgotten most of what he had learned in seminary.

In early 1977, Ratzinger was surprised by a visit from the Pope’s nuncio to Germany, who handed him a confidential letter from Pope Paul VI asking him to be archbishop of Munich. Though deeply loath to leave his university teaching and research, Ratzinger accepted on the advice of a colleague (who, Ratzinger had expected, would counsel refusal) and was ordained bishop on May 28, 1977, just six weeks past his 50th birthday. Bestowal of the cardinal’s hat followed at once.

LOPEZ: What do you remember best of him?

HUGHES: I first encountered Joseph Ratzinger shortly after Easter 1965, when I began my studies for the German Dr. theol. at the University of Münster, the capital of Westphalia, in northern Germany — a part of that country then still so deeply imbued with the ancient faith that its citizens were reputed to say: “We don’t care what they do down there in Rome. We’re staying Catholic.”

Ratzinger, then just 38, was professor of fundamental theology in the Catholic Theological Faculty. He was a modest and shy man; we used to see him riding around town on an ancient bicycle, wearing a beret. A native of Bavaria in southern Germany, he was widely reported to have said: “The best thing about Münster is the railway ticket to Munich [Bavaria’s capital].” I had difficulty sympathizing with that. I was more than 3,000 miles from my home and having a ball. Surely, I thought, a man who lived in the world of ideas should be able to feel at home anywhere.