He wanted to make the world a better place

Michael TaubeWhen the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI passed away on Dec. 31, 2022, it was a sad moment for Catholics around the world.

More than 50,000 people reportedly attended his funeral. The public is currently able to visit his tomb at St. Peter’s Basilica – which once housed the remains of his predecessor, Pope Saint John Paul II, before his beatification in 2011. The Vatican hasn’t said whether his successor, Pope Francis, has visited the tomb. One assumes he will in short order or has already made an appearance without any fanfare.

Pope Benedict’s death also led to a period of thoughtful reflection for many Christians – and even some non-Catholics and non-Christians like me.

Born Joseph Ratzinger on Apr. 16, 1927 in Marktl, Bavaria, Germany, he would become one of Catholicism’s greatest teachers, theologians and historians. For all of his achievements as Pope from 2005 to 2013, and his unique role as Pope emeritus when he stepped down due to his advanced age and the papacy’s difficult demands, this was his greatest accomplishment.

Pope Benedict XVI
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From 1951 to 1977, he taught at four prominent German universities: Bonn, Münster, Tübingen and Regensburg. He was invited to join the University of Notre Dame in the 1960s but politely declined. “I’d love to come,” he wrote to Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, “but I don’t think my English is good enough yet.”

Pope Benedict wrote 66 books, as well as three encyclicals and four apostolic exhortations. Topics included an introduction to Christianity, theology, liturgy, Catholic history, world religions, Saint Paul and Christmas.

The three-volume set on Jesus’s life and teachings is arguably his pièce de résistance. I’ve been re-reading sections from the first book, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. (The other two are Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week and Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.) The history and analysis are fascinating and provide an excellent explanation of Biblical passages, stories and figures.

“God’s will,” Pope Benedict wrote about the Lord’s prayer, “flows from his being and therefore guides us into the truth of our being, liberating us from self-destruction through falsehood.” Moreover, he suggests that “because our being comes from God, we are able, despite all of the defilement that holds us back, to set out on the way to God’s will. The Old Testament concept of the ‘just man’ means exactly that: to live from the word of God, and so from his will, and to find the path that leads into harmony with this will.”

With respect to Jesus’s reference to God’s will and of heaven, Pope Benedict summarizes it like this.

“Jesus himself is ‘heaven’ in the deepest and truest sense of the word,” he wrote, “he in whom and through whom God’s will is wholly done. Looking at him, we realize that, left to ourselves, we can never be completely just: The gravitational pull of our own will constantly draws us away from God’s will and turns us into mere ‘earth.’ But he accepts us, he draws us up to himself, into himself, and in communion with him we too learn God’s will.”

You don’t need to be Christian, Catholic or religious to acknowledge the brilliance of Pope Benedict’s writing and analytical skills. He was a true intellectual, and his opinions were learned and measured. While this was obviously his interpretation of Jesus, the clarity of thought that runs through all three volumes provides an immeasurable number of insights to believers and non-believers alike.

Pope Benedict also worked hard to build, develop and maintain interfaith relationships.

He, along with Pope John Paul II, played a significant role in helping improve Catholic-Jewish relations. It was an issue of vital importance to him as he had been forced – like other 14-year-olds – to join the Hitler Youth in Germany. He participated in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and strongly supported the Nostra Aetate (“In our time”) incipit, which states “neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed” involving Jesus’s death.

Pope Benedict visited Auschwitz in 2006 and said, “the rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the Earth. By destroying Israel with the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention.” He also visited Israel in May 2009, noting “the ancient tradition of pilgrimage to the holy places also reminds us of the inseparable bond between the church and the Jewish people.”

With respect to Christian-Muslim relations, he had a rockier start. A lecture he had given at Regensburg in 2006, Faith, Reason and the University – Memories and Reflections, had frustrated Muslim leaders due to critical references to Muhammad. Pope Benedict later apologized, and gradually took a different tact with Arab nations and the Islamic world.

He visited Turkey in 2006 and prayed at the Blue Mosque, stating, “this visit will help us find together the way of peace for the good of all humanity.” He met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2007 and welcomed King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to the Vatican to discuss the Middle East and the “presence and hard work of Christians” in the latter’s country. He also attended the first summit of the Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome in 2008, and visited the King Hussein Mosque in Jordan the following year.

Pope Benedict was a great man. He loved the Roman Catholic Church and Christianity. He respected and admired other faiths. He wanted to make the world a better place. He accomplished these lofty goals – and many, many more. Rest in peace.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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