The Pope before Francis

(Photo: Vatican)
Pope Benedict XVI with Pope Francis

Pope Francis has, against all odds, become one of the world's most beloved figures; even, bizarrely, appearing on the front of Rolling Stone magazine, but what has happened to his predecessor?

February 11 marked the one year anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI's shocking revelation that he was retiring from papacy; the first pope to do so in almost 600 years. His successor tweeted in recognition of the event on Tuesday: "Today I ask you to join me in prayer for His Holiness Benedict XVI, a man of great courage and humility".

The two men are said to be close, though the former head of the Catholic Church has maintained a quiet lifestyle since officially retiring on 28 February last year.

Upon leaving his post, Benedict declared that he would dedicate himself to prayer while living in a Vatican monastery just west of St Peter's Basilica, and Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi recently confirmed that the former pope "lives in a low-key way, without public attention" in an interview with Vatican Radio.

Benedict apparently spends much of his time in prayer and reflection, studying the Bible and receiving visitors. He also enjoys walking round the garden at the back of his home in the afternoons.

His retirement from the papacy was met with much speculation, though the official explanation was always simply that Benedict felt he was too old to continue the duties expected of a pope, and his chosen humble lifestyle therefore comes as no surprise.

"The Pope did not flee a responsibility, but was courageous enough to realise he no longer had the strength to carry out the papal ministry," says Archbishop Georg Ganswein, the former Pope's personal secretary.

"The fact is that the papacy is a service and not a power," noted Father Lombardi, adding that Benedict "fulfilled his service before God and in good conscience passed the witness of this service to another".

His legacy is marked by his high intelligence and ability to communicate with clarity. The Telegraph called Benedict "modest and wonderful" and "one of the most important pontiffs in Catholic history", and though he cannot claim the unprecedented popularity enjoyed by Francis, the former pope was responsible for initiating some vital changes within the Church.

He began a process of the "purification" of the Vatican, which has been boldly continued by his successor, and also called for the Year of Faith – which saw the Catholic Church encourage believers to deepen their appreciation of the gospel and rediscover an enthusiasm for sharing their faith with others.

There were moments of controversy, certainly. Benedict's Regensburg lecture on Islam and his decision to lift the excommunication on a Holocaust denying cleric each raised questions and many argue that more could have been done to address paedophilia within the Church during his papacy. However, his abhorrence of the evil being perpetrated was always clear and his efforts to meet victims and hear their stories sincere.

Benedict also wrote several books, three of which focussed solely on the life and teachings of Jesus.

'Jesus of Nazareth: the trilogy' received some criticism for questioning the actual date of Christ's birth and whether the angels sang or spoke to the shepherds.  However they were generally received well by those within and outside of the Catholic community and were particularly praised for the way in which Benedict challenged interpretations of the Bible which have been used to justify the persecution of Jews.

Pope Francis himself hailed them as "a gift to the Church, and to all humanity", thanking Benedict for offering "what was most precious to him: his knowledge of Jesus, the fruit of years and years of study, of prayer, [and] of theological investigation".

Though not an official papal duty, Benedict's writings were a "truly unique gift...to the Church", his successor declared.

Though Francis is being hailed a modern day hero, and is deserving of praise for his humility, grace and heart to see "a poor church for the poor", spare a prayer for Benedict today, whose positive legacy is often overlooked.

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