How the Liturgical Calendar Framed Pope Benedict’s Life

COMMENTARY: His Holy Saturday life ended on Dec. 31 — what might this secular and liturgical date suggest to us in God’s providence?

A portrait of the late Pope Benedict XVI is displayed in front of the altarpiece during a Mass of commemoration Jan. 1 at of the Central Catholic Pilgrimage Church in Altotting, Germany.
A portrait of the late Pope Benedict XVI is displayed in front of the altarpiece during a Mass of commemoration Jan. 1 at of the Central Catholic Pilgrimage Church in Altotting, Germany. (photo: Johannes Simon / Getty )

A life shaped by the sacred liturgy began with a birthday — April 16, 1927 — coinciding with a liturgical date, Holy Saturday. Benedict XVI’s last birthday, in 2022, his 95th, was also a Holy Saturday. 

“I have always been filled with thanksgiving for having had my life immersed in this way in the Easter mystery, since this could only be a sign of blessing,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his 1998 memoirs, Milestones

“To be sure, it was not Easter Sunday but Holy Saturday, but, the more I reflect on it, the more this seems to be fitting for the nature of our human life: We are still awaiting Easter; we are still not standing in the full light, but walking toward it in full trust.” 

The Holy Saturday life of Ratzinger/Benedict ended on Dec. 31, 2022. What might that secular and liturgical date suggest to us in God’s providence? Three aspects suggest themselves. 


Dies Natalis

In Catholic tradition the death date of a saint — often also assigned as the feast day — is called the dies natalis, the “birthday” into eternal life. The Christmas Octave, in which Benedict died, marks the birth of the Lord Jesus who makes eternal life possible. 

The Easter Triduum and its octave, along with Pentecost and the Christmas octave, mark the high points of the liturgical year. It is fitting that Benedict’s life would begin and end in heightened liturgical days. 

In recent years, infirmity rendered Benedict no longer able to offer the Holy Mass on his own, and so he concelebrated with his secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein. His last Mass was in his room when he was no longer able to go to the chapel. If the Mass was for the fifth day of Christmas, Benedict would have heard of his patron saint, St. Joseph, together with Mary, bringing the Infant Jesus to the Temple. Simeon then pronounces the “Nunc dimittis,” the nighttime prayer of the Church: “Lord now let your servant go in peace…”

As Benedict progressively lost his ability to write, his hearing and his sight, his voice reduced to a faint whisper, he began to experience more profoundly what he had long taught, namely that the liturgy permits man to speak to God in a way that he otherwise is incapable of doing. 

New Year’s Eve

Benedict died as the old year was passing away, a day of endings oriented toward the threshold of the future, the coming of the new year. New Year’s Eve is a liminal day, a day of looking forward, the countdown to a new year.

In his unimaginably voluminous theological output, Benedict’s work on faith and the liturgy tend to generate the most attention, but a wide consensus is that one of his greatest and most distinctive theological works is his book, Eschatology, the branch of theology which deals with death, judgment, heaven and hell — the four “last things.” The “last things” of this world are not really last things at all, but enduring things which look across the mystery of death to the future which opens before the soul. Death is a sort of New Year’s Eve, an end which is truly a beginning.


Sylvester, Faith and Reason 

The final day of the year is the dies natalis and feast day of Pope St. Sylvester, the first pope to reign entirely with the Church at liberty under Constantine. After the Edict of Milan in 313, Sylvester reigned from 314 to 335 as the Roman Empire was being converted to Christianity. The first order of business, as it were, was to work out sound doctrine about Jesus Christ. 

The highlight of Sylvester’s reign was the Council of Nicaea in 325, where the apostolic faith of the Church was expressed in the language of Greek philosophy — the Son is “consubstantial” with the Father. That extra-biblical word — homoousion in Greek — was essential to the orthodox expression of the faith. The faith adopted the language of reason to express the content of revelation.

Benedict was convinced of “the reasonableness of faith in God,” to which he dedicated his long scholarly life. Faith needs reason, and reason needs faith — a proposition he articulated most dramatically in the 2006 Regensburg Address. Indeed, Benedict emerged as a greater champion of human reason’s capacity to know the truth than many of his secular critics, who were already ensnared in the “dictatorship of relativism. 

In confirming the acts of Nicaea, Sylvester carried out his mission of confessing the faith of Peter in Jesus Christ, using the language of philosophy to do it. That Nicaea’s formula became a liturgical text — “consubstantial” becomes part of the Sunday worship of God — makes Sylvester synthesis of faith, reason and liturgy a fitting dies natalis for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.