Church bells rang across Germany on Saturday as leaders around the country paid their respects to Benedict XVI — the first German to be pope in decades, but whose legacy in his country of birth is contested.
“As a ‘German’ pope, Benedict XVI was a special church leader for many, not only in this country,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a statement on Twitter. “The world loses a formative figure of the Catholic Church, a combative personality and a wise theologian. My thoughts are with Pope Francis.”
In Munich, the archbishop, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, offered a prayer in Benedict’s honor. “Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is dead and we mourn him: He put his trust in You, he lived with You, he sought You. Lead him now to eternal life and grant him the joy of the resurrection.”
Born in 1927 as Josef Ratzinger, in the Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn, the future Benedict XVI grew up during World War II and was enrolled in the Hitler Youth as a teenager, as was compulsory at the time. But it was not his years under Nazi rule — which took a course largely common to German men of his generation — so much as his role in handling sexual abuse scandals in the church that has dogged his legacy in Germany.
Early in 2022, the retired pope, who resigned as the leader of the global Catholic Church in 2013, admitted to providing false information to a German inquiry into clerical sexual abuse, while strongly denying any misconduct or intent to mislead on his part.
In a written statement to the inquiry, he said he did not recall attending a meeting with local officials in 1980 to discuss a priest suspected of pedophilia. Yet Benedict changed that position days after reports came out accusing him during his time as archbishop of Munich, from 1977 to 1982, of mishandling the cases of four priests accused of child sexual abuse. The reports said his denial of being at the meeting lacked credibility.
In response, Benedict asked forgiveness for “abuses and errors” under his watch, but said that the discrepancy in his testimony was an honest mistake introduced during editing.
The chairman of the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference, Georg Bätzing, on Saturday described Benedict as an “impressive theologian” and “experienced shepherd.” But Bishop Bätzing also acknowledged the problems in Benedict’s handling of abuse cases as an archbishop. “He asked forgiveness from those affected, and yet 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, too, raised the topic of sexual abuse in the church.
Benedict “was confronted with the oppressive problem of worldwide sexual abuse and its systematic cover-up,” the president wrote. “Here he had a special responsibility. Benedict knew about the great suffering of the victims and the immense damage to the credibility of the Church.”
On social media, the dean of Cologne’s cathedral posted videos of “Fat Pete,” the church’s largest bell, pealing in honor of Benedict. From Munich, clerics released video of the funerary bell ringing at the church of St. Michael. And across Bavaria, Benedict’s largely Catholic home state, local leaders and state parties mourned his passing.
“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 orientation to many people,” Mr. Söder said. “At the same time, however, he also had to face the responsibility for difficult phases in his ministry.”
In Berlin, Germany’s Parliament announced that mourning flags would be hung from the parliamentary building, noting in a statement that Benedict had come there as a guest 11 years ago. “Never before had a pope spoken before an elected German Parliament,” the statement said.
In the German news media, some riffed on a famous headline from the country’s largest daily, Bild, which in 2005 greeted Benedict’s elevation with the words “We are pope!” On Saturday, at least two news outlets offered a variation: “We were pope.”