Monday, October 30, 2023

A life for Christ the King: Archbishop Lefebvre


First published in the October 2011 issue of The Angelus magazine.

Archbishop Lefebvre: A Life for Christ the King

Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais

Archbishop Lefebvre always linked the priesthood to the social reign of our Lord Jesus Christ: the one is source of the other; the other spontaneously flows from the first.

I. At the French 
Seminary in Rome

On the Via Santa Chiara, where he trained for the priesthood from 1923 to 1929, Fr. Lefebvre learned from Fr. Henri Le Floch, the Father Superior of the house, not to separate what should be joined: the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ and His social reign, a priest’s doctrine and his piety, and also the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the social reign of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the teaching of the popes in their encyclicals.

Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, and Pius XI are the masters, and also Cardinal Pie, Louis Veuillot, and so on. But the Fathers of the seminary were also well-beloved masters to whom they listened.

Fr. Le Floch

According to Archbishop Lefebvre:

Fr. Le Floch made us enter into and live the history of the Church, this fight that the perverse powers take to our Lord. We were mobilized against this dreadful liberalism, against the Revolution and the forces of evil which were trying to overcome the Church, the reign of our Lord, the Catholic States, and the whole of Christianity."[1]


This conflict imposed a personal choice on every seminarian: "We had to choose: we had to leave the seminary if we didn’t agree, or else join in the fight." But taking up the fight meant taking it up for one’s whole life: "I think that our whole life as priestsor as bishopshas been marked by this fight against liberalism."[2]

But how does the priesthood fit into this essentially political combat?

At the French Seminary, the seminarians had to read or had read to them the writings of Godefroid Kurth [The Origins of Modern Civilization, 1912] to make them consider how

the mystical Body of Christ transformed the pagan society of imperial Rome and prepared the growing movement that recognized the plans for society of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Priest and King";


the seminarians also learned through the writings of Fr. Deschamps [in his book Secret Societies and Society] that

revolutions caused the exclusion of Christ the King from government with the final goal of eliminating the Mass and the supernatural life of Christ the sovereign High Priest."[3]


Fr. (and later Cardinal) Billot’s De Ecclesia made them grasp “the sense of the royalty of Christ and the horror of liberalism.” Through the works of Cardinal Pie they learned

the full meaning of ‘thy kingdom come,’ namely, that Our Lord’s kingdom must come not only in individual souls and in heaven, but also on earth by the submission of States and nations to His rule. The dethroning of God on earth is a crime to which we must never resign ourselves" (Fr. Fahey).[4]


[Fr. Fahey was a seminarian in Rome 12 years before Marcel Lefebvre. He attended the same seminary, which was also under Fr. Le Floch’s direction.] “Pius IX’s Syllabus and the encyclicals of the last four popes,” said Fahey, “have been the principal object of my meditations on the royalty of Christ and its relation to the priesthood.”[5]

What a surprising meditation subject for a young seminarian: joining the highest spirituality with the submission of the temporal order to Christ. For Marcel Lefebvre’s teachers, there was no divorce between individual life and political action in the broadest sense. So-called “Catholic” liberalism separates what should remain united.

Fr. Voegtli

It was also at the French Seminary in Rome that Fr. Marc Voegtli, C.S.Sp., a professor at Santa Chiara, commented on Pius XI’s encyclical Quas Primas of December 11, 1925, on the social kingship of Jesus Christ. Before his enthusiastic young audience he set forth the political program of the Catholic Church by the action of the Catholic priest. We’ll explain at the end of this talk the political program in which the priest is engaged.

The testimony of Fr. Voegtli’s students is unanimous: His teaching was simple, he spoke only of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King…. He taught the integrity of the priesthood, the priesthood taken to its logical conclusion: the sacrifice of the priest [Keep that idea in mind] for the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Everything was judged in that light. 'My dear friends,' the Father would say, 'you must preach Our Lord Jesus Christ with all your heart!'"


A collective testimony signed by twelve seminarians declares:

Through him [Fr. Voegtli] we learned to see our Lord Jesus Christ, the King, as the center of everything, the answer to all questions, our food, our thought, our life, everything…. That is what he wanted to impress upon us: that will remain!"[6]


And remain it did, as we shall see. Marcel Lefebvre was one of those who had an unforgettable memory of Fr. Voegtli’s conferences. You may be thinking, "Let’s get to his actions during the Council and after!" Yes, but it is essential to understand the mainspring of his action!

The mainspring of Archbishop Lefebvre’s fight for Christ the King: 
a testimony

He essentially gave his own testimony to the fact: 50 years [after the 12 seminarians’ testimony] one of Fr. Voegtli’s rare faithful disciples, Marcel Lefebvre, also bore witness to the indelible impression produced by Fr. Voegtli’s “talks, which were very simple, taking the words of Scripture, showing who Our Lord Jesus Christ was…. That remained with us for life!”[7]

It even became the subject of the seminarian’s meditation:

We shall never have sufficiently meditated on, or sought to understand, what Our Lord Jesus Christ is…. He should rule our thinking, He makes us holy. He is also our Creator since nothing whatsoever was made without the Word, and therefore without Our Lord Jesus Christ who is the Word. So we must only think about and contemplate Our Lord Jesus Christ. And that transforms one’s life!"[8]


What a striking remark. For Marcel Lefebvre, belief in the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ and consequently His right alone to reign meant personally dedicating himself to the fight. This he did, like many of his confreres, at Rome before the Confession of St. Peter. There he made a private vow of doctrinal and militant “Romanity.” The account of the Fr. Berto suggests that making such a vow was normal and went without saying. The seminarian promised “to be constantly on crusade” (Archbishop Lefebvre).[9]

He didn’t know when or where or in what troubled, tragic circumstances of the Church it would be that he would have to enter the arena and himself write a page of that Church history that he was shown under the light of Christ the King, but he knew that he would have to join in the battle.

The Second Vatican Council was to be the providential moment for Archbishop Lefebvre, the moment when he felt himself pushed to intervene in fidelity to the promise he had made as a seminarian at Rome long before.

II. Herald of Christ the King

During the Council, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre became the head of the resistance against false religious freedom in the name of Christ the King. During the presentation of two rival drafts on religious freedom, one by Cardinal Bea and one by Cardinal Ottaviani, at the last meeting of the Central Preparatory Commission in June 1962, he gave his opinion.

About the liberal schema of Cardinal Bea, he said:

On Religious Liberty: non placet… since it is based on false principles solemnly condemned by the sovereign pontiffs, for example Pius IX, who calls this error "delirium" (Denzinger 1690)…. The schema on religious liberty does not preach Christ and therefore seems false…."


About the Catholic schema of Cardinal Ottaviani, he said:

‘On the Church’: placet. However, the exposition of the fundamental principles could be done with more reference to Christ the King as in the encyclical Quas Primas…. Our Council could have as its aim to preach Christ to all men, and to state that it belongs to the Catholic Church alone to be the true preacher of Christ who is the salvation and life of individuals, families, professional associations, and of other civil bodies.


…The Theological Commission’s schema expounds the authentic doctrine but does so like a thesis; it does not sufficiently show the aim of this doctrine which is nothing other than the reign of Christ…. From the point of view of Christ as source of salvation and life, all the fundamental truths could be expounded as they say “pastorally,” and in this way the errors of secularism, naturalism, and materialism, etc., would be excluded."[10]


III. Theological adversary 
of the secular state

The Declaration on Religious Freedom promulgated by the Council on December 7, 1965, Dignitatis Humanae, seems to assert that the State must recognize the Catholic religion as the one true one (DH 1), but at the same time it teaches the “natural” freedom of the adherents of false cults to practice their beliefs publicly (DH 6). This contradiction became more problematic after the Council from the way the Holy See required its application by States that were still officially Catholic: the article in their constitutions professing the Catholic religion as the State religion had to be expunged.

So, while passing through Colombia, South America, soon after the suppression of the “Catholic religion” as “that of the nation,” Archbishop Lefebvre remarked that “the speech of the president of the Republic is more Catholic than the Nuncio’s.” The Archbishop was indignant that Ireland had agreed to replace the expression “the special position of the holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church as guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of its citizens,” with “the homage of public worship” given by the State “to Almighty God.”

In Italy, Article 1 of the Lateran Accords of February 11, 1929, read:

Italy recognizes and reaffirms the principle expressed by Article 1 of the Statute of the Realm of March 4, 1848, by which the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion is the only religion of the State."[11]


In 1984, to the consternation of Archbishop Lefebvre, the new concordat between the Holy See and Italy only recognized that “the principles of Catholicism constitute part of the historical patrimony of the Italian people.” In 1977 [7 years before the 1984 concordat], Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, the Archbishop of Milan, had declared: "o stato non puo essere che laico.The State can only be secular. He explained:

The Church does not ask for privileges, but for genuine freedom…. In the current historical development of society, a confessional State is not possible: not only a confessional Christian State, but also a confessional Marxist atheistic State or a confessional radical bourgeois State. We are calling for a State that does not embrace any particular ideology, that does not impose the dogmas of any culture, and that does not identify with any party. Otherwise, very many of its citizens, because of their religious or ideological or partisan choices, would be compelled to feel like strangers in their own land."[12]


In terms that are insulting to the Church of Christ thus put on a par with ideologies, parties, and cultures, the Cardinal could not better express the current interpretation given to Dignitatis Humanae as propounding the agnostic and indifferentist State. The State’s pledge of allegiance to Jesus Christ, God Incarnate and the one true God, would amount to uncharitableness, contempt for human dignity, and unfair discrimination.

Archbishop Lefebvre spoke out against these liberal platitudes in an interview with the three cardinals who questioned him in 1975. “The goal of the secularization of the State,” he said, “is nothing other than the goal of the devil, who is behind Freemasonry: the destruction of the Catholic Church by affording all the false religions freedom of speech and by forbidding the State to work for the social kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The archbishop explained what he meant: First of all, the recognition of Christ by the State is not a privilege; it is the right of the Man-God and Redeemer of the human race. On the other hand, “How many Catholics are still able to recognize that the work of our Lord’s Redemption must also be accomplished through civil society?” And yet this is so, for “everything was made for our Lord Jesus Christ,” as St. Paul teaches (Col. 1:16).[13]

Man has but one ultimate goal: eternal salvation. The Church works directly toward this goal, but the State should also work towards it, although indirectly, for civil society is also a creature of our Lord Jesus Christ.[14] Consequently, as St. Pius X teaches, the State has as its “ultimate object …man’s eternal happiness after this short life shall have run its course.”[15]

This… is founded on the dogmatic reason and on the experience of the conversion of numerous nations subsequent to the conversion of their rulers: for example, Clovis, Ethelbert, and so on. This fact prompted St. Alphonsus Liguori to declare: “If I convert a king, I do more for the Catholic cause than hundreds of missionaries.”

Archbishop Lefebvre also held the supernatural and traditional position of the Church on Christ the King—namely, that the State should be an instrument in the work of Redemption. He is not far from taking as his own the program of his brother in religion and co-alumnus of Santa Chiara, Denis Fahey: since the reign of Christ must be established by the cross (“Regnavit a ligno Deus” we sing in the Vexilla Regis):

In order to favor union with Christ as Priest in Holy Mass, God wants the world organized under Christ as King."[16]


From this it follows that:

At Holy Mass all the members of Christ express their determination to work for the integral establishment of the rights of God and of Christ the King over the world."[17]


More briefly, Archbishop Lefebvre would often say: “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the expression of the kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

At the French Seminary in Rome, Fr. Marc Voegtli, following the teaching of Fr. Deschamps, taught the young Marcel Lefebvre the liberal, Freemasonic agenda in three points:

  1. The banishment of Christ the King from government by the secularization of the State;
  2. eliminating the Mass which would result from the persecution of the Church by legal means, and ultimately the secularization of the Church itself, the supreme plot of initiated Masons; in order
  3. finally to suppress the grace of Jesus Christ High Priest in souls—the very secularization of Catholic souls. All of this happened after the Second Vatican Council…

What Archbishop Lefebvre did is reverse this satanic program in order to come up with the Catholic program, which is that of the Society of St. Pius X, also in three points:

  1. Restore to the faithful the Mass—the true Mass, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—which is the source and expression of the reign of Jesus Christ.
  2. By the grace of the Mass, form an elite of faithful Catholics living in the state of grace; and
  3. through the work of this elite in public institutions—not just in ecclesiastical organizations, but also in openly Catholic civil organizations—re-crown our Lord Jesus Christ in society: “Omnia instaurare in ChristoEstablish all things in Christ,” according to the motto of St. Pius X.

This is the program Archbishop Lefebvre tried to explain to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, in a meeting they had in Rome on July 14, 1987:

Eminence… you are working to dechristianize society and the Church, and we are working to Christianize them. For us, our Lord Jesus Christ is everything, He is our life. The Church is our Lord Jesus Christ; the priest is another Christ; the Mass is the triumph of Jesus Christ on the cross; in our seminaries everything tends towards the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ. But You! You are doing the opposite: you have just wanted to prove to me that our Lord Jesus Christ cannot, and must not, reign over society.


For us, our Lord Jesus Christ is everything!"[18]


See also these related books:


1 Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Marcel Lefebvre: The Biography, pp. 36-7.


3 Fr. Denis Fahey, C.S.Sp., “Apologia pro Vita Mea,” 1950 (reprinted in Catholic Family News, April & May 1997), quoted in Tissier, Marcel Lefebvre, p. 37.


Ibid., pp. 37-8.

6 Tissier, Marcel Lefebvre, pp. 43-4.

Ibid., p. 44.


9 Archbishop Lefebvre, The Little Story of My Long Life [ref. to French edition], p. 28.

10 Tissier de Mallerais, Marcel Lefebvre, p. 285.

11 A.A.S. 21 (1929), pp. 290 seq.

12 Quoted from L’Osservatore Romano, translated from the Italian and published by “Ya” on July 14, 1977, and reprinted in the bulletin of the CICES, No. 210, March 15, 1977, under the byline of Andre Laforge.

13 Spiritual Conference, Econe, September 23, 1977, relating the conference of Archbishop Lefebvre at Rome at Princess Palaviccini’s in June 1977. CfThey Have Uncrowned Him, p. 101 [ref. to French edition].

14 It is a creature of God because the social nature of man is God’s creation.

15 St. Pius X, encyclical Vehementer Nos condemning the Law of Separation of Church and State in France, February 11, 1906.

16 Rev. Fr. Denis Fahey, C.S.Sp., The Mystical Body of Christ and the Reorganization of Society, pp. 114-5.

17 Ibid.

18 Tissier de Mallerais, Marcel Lefebvre, p. 548.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Traditionis custodes & Desiderio desideravi - the soon-to-be abolished Tridentine Mass in Malta


With the death of Benedict XVI at the end of 2022, it became known how painful it was for the late Pope the publication of Traditionis custodes (16 July 2021) as well as Desiderio desideravi (29 June 2022). In the latter document, Pope Francis called on Catholics to overcome forms of aestheticism that appreciate only outward formality or allow sloppiness in liturgy, noting that “a celebration that does not evangelize is not authentic.”

The Pope’s Apostolic Letter reaffirms the importance of ecclesial communion around the Novus Ordo Missae to the detriment of other valid Catholic rites. Below are some pertinent points from it:

  • Recalling the importance of Vatican II’s constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium  the Pope adds, ”I want the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church not to be spoiled by a superficial and foreshortened understanding of its value or, worse yet, by its being exploited in service of some ideological vision, no matter what the hue” (16).
  • After warning against “spiritual worldliness” and the Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism that fuel it, Pope Francis explains that “Participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice is not our own achievement, as if because of it we could boast before God or before our brothers and sisters” and that “the Liturgy has nothing to do with an ascetical moralism. It is the gift of the Paschal Mystery of the Lord which, received with docility, makes our life new. The cenacle is not entered except through the power of attraction of his desire to eat the Passover with us” (20).
  • To heal from spiritual worldliness, we need to rediscover the beauty of the liturgy, but this rediscovery “is not the search for a ritual aesthetic which is content by only a careful exterior observance of a rite or is satisfied by a scrupulous observance of the rubrics. Obviously, what I am saying here does not wish in any way to approve the opposite attitude, which confuses simplicity with a careless banality, or what is essential with an ignorant superficiality, or the concreteness of ritual action with an exasperating practical functionalism” (22).
  • He writes that “it would be trivial to read the tensions, unfortunately present around the celebration, as a simple divergence between different tastes concerning a particular ritual form. The problematic is primarily ecclesiological.” (31) 
  • The Pope points out he does not see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the Council, and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform born out of Sacrosanctum Concilium.
  • A liturgical-sapiential plan of studies in the theological formation of seminaries would certainly have positive effects in pastoral action. There is no aspect of ecclesial life that does not find its summit and its source in the Liturgy. More than being the result of elaborate programs, a comprehensive, organic, and integrated pastoral practice is the consequence of placing the Sunday Eucharist, the foundation of communion, at the centre of the life of the community. The theological understanding of the Liturgy does not in any way permit that these words be understood to mean to reduce everything to the aspect of worship. A celebration that does not evangelize is not authentic, just as a proclamation that does not lead to an encounter with the risen Lord in the celebration is not authentic. And then both of these, without the testimony of charity, are like sounding a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (37).
  • Among the ritual acts that belong to the whole assembly, silence occupies a place of absolute importance” which “moves to sorrow for sin and the desire for conversion. It awakens a readiness to hear the Word and awakens prayer. It disposes us to adore the Body and Blood of Christ” (52).
  • Pope Francis asks “all bishops, priests, and deacons, the formators in seminaries, the instructors in theological faculties and schools of theology, and all catechists to help the holy people of God to draw from what is the first wellspring of Christian spirituality,” reaffirming what is established in Traditionis custodes so that “the Church may lift up, in the variety of so many languages, one and the same prayer capable of expressing her unity,” and this single prayer is the Roman Rite that resulted from the conciliar reform and was established by the saintly pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II.   
  • Let us recall that in an interview a couple of days after Benedict XVI's death, Archbishop Gänswein admitted the following:

Interviewer: So, Pope Benedict’s lifting of restrictions on celebrating the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite according to the 1962 Missal did not last as long as he intended. As Pope Emeritus, he was around to see the promulgation of Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. Was he disappointed?

Archbishop Gänswein: It hit him pretty hard. I believe it broke Pope Benedict’s heart to read the new motu proprio, because his intention had been to help those who simply found a home in the Missale Vetustum — to find inner peace, to find liturgical peace — in order to draw them away from Marcel Lefebvre. And if you think about how many centuries the old Mass was the source of spiritual life and nourishment for many people including many saints, it’s impossible to imagine that it no longer has anything to offer. And let’s not forget that many young people — who were born long after the Second Vatican Council, and who don’t really grasp all the drama surrounding that council — that these young people, knowing the new Mass, have nevertheless found a spiritual home, a spiritual treasure in the old Mass as well. To take this treasure away from people … well, I can’t say that I’m comfortable with that.

Liturgical parody


A symphatiser of Pro Tridentina (Malta) sent the below photo taken inside the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Villambrosa, Ħamrun. This is the latest example of how the liturgy in Malta is being ridiculed. One assumes that this was acceptable to the Archdiocese of Malta. 

Source: Facebook

Friday, July 14, 2023

Practical suggestions for traditional Catholics

This Blog has the following suggestions for those traditional Catholics who find themselves without access to traditional celebrations of the Tridentine Mass or after its suppression following Pope Francis' Traditionis custodes:

  • establish a lay-led community which focuses on the celebration of the traditional chanted Divine Office. Pro Tridentina (Malta) is exploring this possibility.
  • If you do not have a sympathetic Bishop or priest, rent or purchase a retail space or church and renovate it, adding iconography and seats for antiphonal singing. Pro Tridentina (Malta) is currently conducting a study to establish which places can be used to further expand the Tridentine Mass in Malta, and especially in Gozo which remains without this Mass.
  • Celebrate at least Vespers and Matins on the Lord’s Day, and other services throughout the day or week.
  • Offer catechetical teachings for adults, teens and children.
  • Then find a parish that offers the most traditional Novus Ordo liturgy you can find and attend the Mass. This is becoming more of a challenge in Malta and Gozo.
  • Be sure to engage in the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.
  • If possible, affiliate with a tradition-minded Tertiary or Lay Associate group.
  • Find a priest or deacon who can help serve as a spiritual director, even from a distance.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Ephesus Prayer to Our Lady

SALVE a nobis, Deipara Maria, venerandus totius orbis thesaurus, lampas inextinguibilis, corona virginitatis, sceptrum rectae doctrinae, templum indissolubile, locus eius qui loco capi non potest, mater et virgo, per quam is benedictus in sanctis Evangeliis nominatur, qui venit in nomine Domini.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

FIUV Appeal concerning the Traditional Mass


Appeal for prayers and penances for the Liberty of the Traditional Mass in Lent

From Una Voce International and others

Una Voce International and other organisations, groups and individuals concerned with the Traditional Latin Mass would like to appeal to all Catholics of good will to offer prayers and penances during the season of Lent, particularly for the intention: the liberty of the Traditional Mass.

We do not know how credible rumours of further documents from the Holy See on this subject may be, but the rumours themselves point to a situation of doubt, conflict, and apprehension, which is severely harmful to the mission of the Church. We appeal to our Lord, through His Blessed Mother, to restore to all Catholics the right and opportunity to worship according to the Church’s own venerable liturgical traditions, in perfect unity with the Holy Father and the bishops of the whole Church.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Breaking: Pope emeritus Benedict XVI dies at 95

Benedict XVI, one of the world’s foremost theologians and the first pope to retire in almost 600 years, died on Dec. 31 at the age of 95. 

(adapted from The Pillar)

A Dec. 31 statement from the Holy See press office said: “With sorrow I inform you that the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, passed away today at 9:34 in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican. Further information will be provided as soon as possible.”

Benedict XVI helped to shape the Catholic Church’s trajectory long before he was elected to the papacy, first as a young theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council and then as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office.

Benedict influenced generations of Catholics with his writings, including his 1968 book “Introduction to Christianity,” his treatise “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” and his trilogy “Jesus of Nazareth,” composed while he was pope.

He reflected deeply on the tensions between secular modernity and the Church, introducing phrases such as “the dictatorship of relativism” into Catholic discourse and popularizing the concept of Catholics serving as a “creative minority” within secularized societies.

As pope from 2005 to 2013, he led the Church’s response to the clerical abuse crisis, dismissing hundreds of perpetrators from the clerical state. But he later personally asked forgiveness from abuse survivors amid criticism of his handling of cases as archbishop of Munich, southern Germany, from 1977 to 1982.

Awaiting Easter

He was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, a village in the German state of Bavaria. In his 1998 memoir Milestones, he noted that he emerged into the world on 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,” he wrote. “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.”

He was the third child after his sister Maria and brother Georg, who went on to become a priest and conductor of the renowned Regensburger Domspatzen choir. His mother was a cook and his father a police officer who was disciplined after criticizing the Nazis.

An intellectually precocious child who disliked school sports, he entered a minor seminary in 1939, at the age of 12. That year, German youngsters were legally required to join the Hitler Youth. He was enrolled but avoided attending meetings of the Nazi organization.

After the Second World War broke out, the seminary was shuttered and he was drafted into the military, serving in an anti-aircraft unit and helping to prepare anti-tank defenses. He abandoned his post in 1945 as the Allies swept into Germany, although the penalty for desertion was death.

In “Milestones,” he described how he attempted to reach home on foot without being detected. “But, as I walked out of a railroad underpass, two soldiers were standing at their posts, and for a moment the situation was extremely critical for me,” he wrote. “Thank God that they, too, had had their fill of war and did not want to become murderers.”

He was reunited briefly with his family, but then seized by U.S. forces and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp near the city of Ulm. He slept outdoors, but was consoled by the sight of the spire of Ulm cathedral. “Day after day the sight of it was for me like a consoling proclamation of the indestructible humaneness of faith,” he later wrote.

When he was finally released, the driver of a milk truck gave him a lift back to his hometown. He reached it before sunset, recalling that “the heavenly Jerusalem itself could not have appeared more beautiful to me at that moment.”

He returned to his seminary studies and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising on June 29, 1951, at the age of 24. When the archbishop placed his hands on him during the rite, a bird flew up from the high altar and began to sing, which he took to be “a reassurance from on high” that he was on the right path.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with Pope Paul VI. Jornal O Bom Católico via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).

Coworker of the truth

After earning a doctorate, Ratzinger began teaching, and his reputation as a theologian grew. Cologne’s Cardinal Joseph Frings asked him to serve as a peritus, or adviser, at Vatican II, one of the major Catholic events of the 20th century.

He supported the reforming current at the ecumenical council and afterward received an invitation from the prominent progressive theologian Hans Küng to teach at the renowned University of Tübingen. But there he concluded that the Council’s reforms were being distorted by activists imbued with the revolutionary spirit of the late 1960s. “Anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity,” he said decades later.

He left Tübingen in 1969 to teach at the less prestigious University of Regensburg in his Bavarian homeland. That year, he made a radio broadcast in which he pondered the Church’s future.

“From the crisis of today,” he said, “the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.”

But in the end, he predicted, “the church of faith” would remain. “It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as Man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death,” he said.

In 1972, Ratzinger helped to found the influential theological journal Communio, with fellow theological luminaries Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac.

He was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising on May 28, 1977, at the relatively young age of 49. He took the motto “Cooperatores veritatis” (“Coworkers of the truth”), drawn from 3 John 8. He was made a cardinal a month after his episcopal ordination.

His tenure in Munich was overshadowed decades later by a report that accused him of mishandling four abuse cases. He denied claims that he had sought to cover up wrongdoing, but in a letter issued in 2022, he said: “I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Szczepanów, Poland, on May 10, 2003. Muu-karhu via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).

Doctrinal defender

Pope John Paul II summoned Ratzinger to Rome in 1981 to serve as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Polish pope believed that the decades after Vatican II were marred by a theological free-for-all and encouraged the cardinal to help restore a sense of balance.

Ratzinger took action against prominent theologians he believed had departed from Catholic teaching, including the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, the Sri Lankan priest Tissa Balasuriya, and the Belgian Jesuit Jacques Dupuis.

These actions made him a controversial figure among Catholics on the Church’s progressive wing, who referred to him as the “Panzer Cardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler.” He complained that he was being cast as a bogeyman when he was only seeking to help simple believers recognize misleading accounts of the faith.

With John Paul II’s unflagging support, he tackled the Church’s most contested topics, from women priests to homosexuality. He also sought to present Catholic teaching in a positive light in his personal theological works and through his labor on the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, a monumental guide to the faith.

After the turn of the millennium, he continued to serve as a theological lightning rod. In the year 2000, he signed the declaration Dominus Iesus, which affirmed that there is “a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church” — prompting criticism from Protestant leaders.

In 2001, Ratzinger convinced John Paul II to allow his Vatican congregation to investigate cases of clerical abuse worldwide. Once a week, he would read through dossiers on accused priests, a practice he referred to as “our Friday penance.” Between 2004 and 2014, 848 priests were laicized and 2,572 given other penalties.

In a 2004 lecture on Europe’s Christian roots, Ratzinger invoked the historian Arnold Toynbee’s idea of “creative minorities” who help to revitalize civilizations. “Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority, and help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to therefore place itself at the service of all humankind,” he said.

In light of his age and bouts of ill health, he tried to resign several times, but continued to work as the Vatican’s doctrinal enforcer until John Paul II’s death in 2005.

Ratzinger presided at the Polish pope’s funeral, before a television audience of more than 2 billion. In his role as dean of the College of Cardinals, he preached to the world’s cardinals before they entered the conclave to elect John Paul II’s successor. He warned them that “having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism,” while a “dictatorship of relativism” was being built “that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presides at the funeral of Pope John Paul II on April 8, 2005. Ricardo Stuckert/PR - Agência Brasil via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0 br).

The Church is alive

After four ballots, he was elected pope on April 19, 2005, at the age of 78. He chose the name Benedict XVI in honor of Benedict XV, who “guided the Church through the turbulent times of the First World War,” and St. Benedict, “a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe.”

At his installation Mass, he appeared to acknowledge the forces arrayed against him, asking for prayers “that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.” But he also struck a hopeful note, saying that in his predecessor’s last days, “it became wonderfully evident to us that the Church is alive. And the Church is young.”

“She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future,” he said.

His almost eight-year pontificate was marked by a series of crises.

The most challenging and extended was the abuse crisis. Just two months after his election, he imposed restrictions on Fr. Marcial Maciel, the powerful founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who appeared to have been protected by figures at the Vatican despite evidence of his depravity.

The global media repeatedly accused Benedict XVI of having covered up abuse as an archbishop in Germany and a prefect in Rome — claims firmly rejected by his supporters.

He met abuse survivors during his foreign visits and sent a landmark letter to Irish Catholics in 2010, acknowledging that some abuse survivors “find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred.”

Another crisis occurred in 2006, when he gave an address at the University of Regensberg in Germany in which he cited a Byzantine emperor who told a Muslim interlocutor that Mohammed had brought into the world “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Benedict noted that the emperor delivered the words with “a brusqueness that we find unacceptable,” but his speech was reported around the world as if he had endorsed the remark. Muslims erupted in protest from Jordan to Indonesia.

Two months later, he made a conciliatory visit to Turkey, pausing for a moment of reflection alongside an Islamic cleric in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.

In 2009, he sparked a another crisis when he lifted the excommunications of four bishops belonging to the Society of St. Pius (SSPX), the breakaway group founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The move coincided with an interview in which one of the four, Bishop Richard Williamson, denied the Holocaust. Benedict wrote an apologetic letter to the world’s bishops, noting that he had been told “that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on.”

As pope, he made far-reaching decisions on the liturgy, ecumenism, and Vatican finances.

His 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum acknowledged priests’ right to offer Mass using the Roman Missal of 1962, which is in Latin. He defined the new and old versions of the Roman Missal as the “ordinary” and “extraordinary” forms of the Roman Rite, expressing the hope that they would be “mutually enriching.”

In his 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, he established personal ordinariates enabling groups of Anglicans to enter into full communion with Rome while preserving elements of their patrimony.

In 2010, he attempted to shed light on the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances with the creation of a watchdog body, the Financial Information Authority. His efforts at reform were undermined by a series of leaked documents in what came to be known as the “Vati-Leaks” scandal, which led to the jailing of his butler.

Despite his advanced age, he made trips to countries including Australia, Brazil, and Benin. In 2008, he undertook a six-day visit to the United States, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, praying at Ground Zero, and visiting the White House.

He beatified more than 800 people, including Cardinal John Henry Newman, canonized 45 others, and proclaimed St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. John of Avila Doctors of the Church.

He published three encyclicals: Deus caritas est, on love; Spe salvi, on hope; and Caritas in Veritate, on charity. His fourth, Lumen fidei, was left unfinished and completed by his successor Pope Francis.

Throughout his pontificate, he stressed the continuity of the Catholic faith. Speaking to Vatican officials in 2005, he criticized those who interpreted Vatican II in terms of “discontinuity and rupture,” arguing that it should be understood instead with a “hermeneutic of reform” that did not imply “a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.”

Benedict XVI resigned on Feb. 11, 2013, announcing the dramatic break with centuries of tradition in Latin to an audience of shocked cardinals. He told them that “both strength of mind and body” were necessary to govern the Church, but that strength had “deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

His resignation took effect on Feb. 28, 2013, when he departed Vatican City by helicopter. Arriving at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, he described himself as “simply a pilgrim who is starting the last stage of his pilgrimage on Earth.”

“Let us go ahead together with the Lord for the good of the Church and of the world,” he said, before departing into retirement.

Benedict XVI’s last public appearance as pope, at Castel Gandolfo on Feb. 28, 2013. © Mazur/

The last stretch

Benedict XVI adopted the title “pope emeritus” and continued to wear white — choices that critics said might lead Catholics to think he was still pope. He settled in a new home, the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican Gardens. He was 85 years old and not expected to live long, though the Vatican had not indicated a terminal illness. But over the next 10 years, he remained active.

His first public appearance after his resignation came in February 2014, at Pope Francis’ first consistory for the creation of new cardinals. Months later, he was present at the canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII.

In retirement, he continued his long collaboration with the journalist Peter Seewald. Together, they produced the 2016 book-length interview “Last Testament,” their fourth after “Salt of the Earth” (1997), “God and the World” (2002), and “Light of the World” (2010).  They also worked together on a multi-volume biography “Benedict XVI: A Life,” published in German in 2020.

He occasionally generated controversy in retirement, contributing in 2019 to a book supporting clerical celibacy amid a debate about a relaxation of the discipline in the Amazon region. In an essay published in the same year, he was accused of blaming clerical abuse on the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But he insisted that his point was that the crisis was caused by a turning away from God.

Catholics around the world continued to cherish the German pope in his retirement. On his 95th birthday, thousands of people sent messages via a website dedicated to his work.

His longtime personal secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein confided that Benedict himself was surprised by his longevity, recalling that he once said: “I would never have believed that the last stretch of the journey that would take me from the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery to the gates of heaven with St. Peter would be so long.”

Benedict XVI was born on April 16, 1927. He died on Dec. 31, 2022, aged 95.