Benedict XVI: Friends and Scholars Recall His Life, Legacy and Teaching

His friendship with Christ, love for truth, and ‘remarkable’ ability to communicate were just some of the late pontiff’s qualities remembered at a two-day Rome conference on the first anniversary of his death.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein speaks with EWTN's Matthew Bunson about Pope Benedict XVI on Dec. 30, 2023.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein speaks with EWTN's Matthew Bunson about Pope Benedict XVI on Dec. 30, 2023. (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy “will last, bear fruit and nourish the spiritual lives of many, many people, especially the young,” his former personal secretary has predicted. 

Speaking to the Register on the sidelines of a Rome conference celebrating Joseph Ratzinger’s life and pontificate one year after his death, Archbishop Georg Gänswein said, “The legacy of Pope Benedict will be discovered, it will emerge, because Benedict was not just a very real and truthful person, nor someone who tried to draw attention to himself, but because he was someone who tried to serve God, love the people of the Church, and love the truth.”

“That was, for him, a great and very important mission of his life and his theology, both as cardinal and as Pope,” Archbishop Gänswein added. 

Archbishop George Gänswein
Archbishop Georg Gänswein speaking to reporters at the Campo Santo Teutonico in the Vatican, Dec. 30, 2023 (Photo: Edward Pentin/NCRegister)

The Dec. 30-31 conference, co-hosted by EWTN, the Fundatio Christiana Virtus, and the Vatican Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI foundation, examined the “life, teaching and legacy” of the late pope, drawing on scholars, experts, some of his friends. It took place at the Campo Santo Teutonico within the Vatican walls.  

Divine Word Missionary Father Vincent Twomey, a professor emeritus of moral theology and a friend and former student of professor Joseph Ratzinger, told the Register that, to him, Benedict XVI’s greatest legacy will be his writings. 

Father Twomey said he has been struck by how much young people have found, through Benedict XVI’s writings, “the key to how they can be liberated from the terrible darkness that surrounds us, where people are escaping all the time.”

He cited one of Benedict’s “great papers” — Christian Orientation in Pluralist Democracy — in which he said the then professor Ratzinger observed how all of today’s problems are “forms of escapism” whether they be “suicide, alcoholism and drugs, sex,” because “man has lost the heart with an openness to transcendence.” 

Father Twomey added, “All the problems go back to the fact that there’s no faith and so no hope and no love.” He highlighted for further reading Benedict XVI’s 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi. The papal document, Father Twomey said, stressed that “we can’t live without the eternal hope,” and that “no matter what we go through, God is victorious.” 

Remembering Benedict XVI’s expertise in eschatology and the Last Things (death, judgment, heaven and hell), Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Swiss prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, noted that part of the late Pope’s theological legacy was that he “explained the mystery of death and life in a new way.” 

“As Pope Benedict XVI expressed in his last words before his death, ‘Lord, I love you,’ this summarizes in one word what eternal life is all about: allowing oneself to experience the love of God to the fullest and worshipping him in love,” Cardinal Koch said. 

He stressed how Benedict saw true Christian hope rooted in belief in eternal life, the “infinite love of God that wants eternity for every human being.” 

Benedict, Cardinal Koch recalled, “described this truly Christian hope in these profound words, ‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me — I am awaited by this Love.” 

“The unmistakable characteristic of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological thinking on life after death lies in this relational event, which forms the basis for the Christian hope of eternal life,” he added, noting that belief in eternal life is “the central moment of our faith.” 

Addressing the same theme, Father Ralph Weimann, a German theology professor at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, said it had become clear to the late pontiff that “we can only stand before God at the end of our lives if we have held on to the truth and remained in love.” 

In death, Father Weimann, who knew Benedict well, added, “there is no longer any possibility of changing our basic decision; it becomes definitive at that moment,” but as the Lord wants the salvation of all, he also “has come to offer us his mercy,” which he shares above all through the sacrament of confession. Benedict XVI, he said, knew this very well, and appealed to God’s mercy so that the Lord would “accomplish in him all that he had lacked to do in his life.” 

Archbishop Gänswein told the conference that Benedict “practiced what he had always taught: to prepare the way to eternal life.” He added, “My impression was that he was going to a friend, a friend to whom he was dedicated all his life.”

Reflecting on the centrality of Christ in Benedict’s theology, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, said “Joseph Ratzinger’s entire Christology and piety for Christ is a unique testimony to Jesus who leads us in our faith and brings us to perfection.” 

Cardinal Gerhard Müller
Cardinal Gerhard Müller discusses the life and legacy of Pope Benedict XVI on Dec. 30, 2023. (Photo: Edward Pentin)

The German cardinal, who founded the Benedict XVI Institute to make available Joseph Ratzinger’s collected works, said Benedict XVI “confessed during his lifetime that [Christ] is truly risen, that he is the living God, that we trust in him and so know we are on the right path.” Christianity for Joseph Ratzinger, the cardinal reminded the audience, “is not a theory but a relationship with a Person, our Savior.” 

Professor Matthew Bunson, a Church historian and vice president of EWTN News, stressed it was “impossible to assess Benedict XVI’s theology” without understanding his friendship with Christ and his emphasis on Christ entering fully into our lives. 

“Pope Benedict XVI found true life, true freedom in Christ,” Bunson said. “We are now only at the earliest days of appreciating his gifts to the Church in virtually every area of the faith. But his love of Christ, his friendship with Christ, shows us the way of placing Christ at the center.”

Recalling his service as Benedict XVI’s media spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said that Pope St. John Paul II is always recognized as a great communicator, but so was Benedict XVI, he said, yet with a very different style. His words had a “perfect order” so that even his most profound statements could be understood, he said.

Father Lombardi remembered that Benedict didn’t like being interrupted as it would cause him to lose his thread of reasoning which had a “synthesis” from “beginning to end.” Such a capacity to synthesize complex and profound issues and present them in understandable ways was “remarkable” Father Lombardi recalled. 

“He was a wonderful communicator,” the former Vatican spokesman said. “He also had a love for the truth, not only intellectual truth and so was able to write well about problems, but to be really always in the truth, and this was the key to his service during the long story of sexual abuse.” Through his emphasis on always saying what was true and being careful not to convey what was untrue, he said Benedict “showed us the right way to go” regarding the sexual abuse crisis. “Why? Because he is a man of truth.” 

Archbishop Gänswein noted how prophetic Benedict XVI was in his teaching and writing, and how he had warned “decades earlier” that when society forgets God, everything implodes. He also remembered how, for Benedict, reason and faith were “the great themes of his life and also as Pope,” and how he saw beauty at the service of truth. 

“Beauty is the little sister of the truth, the fruit of the truth,” the archbishop said, recalling Benedict’s teaching. “Where there is truth there is beauty; people sense that by heart and that’s very important.”

Father Weimann remembered Benedict’s personal character, and how he “elevated the person in front of him while humbling himself.” This was “part of his greatness I think, which right now the world won’t understand because we’re all looking at the appearance.” He said Benedict XVI was coherent with the “Marian principle,” and how Our Lady was a “perfect example” of being a humble presence. 

At a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to mark Benedict’s passing on Dec. 31, Archbishop Gänswein spoke of how the Church’s faithful, both her living members and “deceased loved ones,” are united through the Eucharist.

“In the Eucharist we also remain united with Benedict XVI,” he said, “sincerely grateful to God for the gift of his life, the richness of his magisterium, the depth of his theology and the shining example of this ‘simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.’ Amen.”