Benedict XVI funeral: Another moment in history for one of the most ancient institutions on earth

The city prepares for a pope's funeral, with questions hanging in the air for the current pontiff - Julie Etchingham reports

His reputation had gone before him.

It was 1988 and the Catholic chaplaincy where I was at university was getting ready to welcome Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from Rome to give its annual lecture.

It was clearly regarded amongst the clergy and the theology students as quite the coup. But in those pre-google days, for most of us students - it was tricky to find out much about him in advance.

But the nickname stood out.

As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the defender of and stickler for Church orthodoxy and teaching had become known as God’s Rottweiler. It’s fair to say some of us who attended were expecting the full hellfire and brimstone.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, right, pictured with his predecessor Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1979 Credit: AP

I confess after all these years, and with regret - I remember very little about the lecture itself. He spoke to us on the issue of material consumerism and Christian hope (thank you google) - which in the Eighties was perfect turf.

But what I remember clearly was his manner and personality.

The Rottweiler was nowhere to be seen. He was gentle, self-effacing and softly-spoken with us students over coffee after the lecture, warm and engaging.

The piano-playing, Mozart-loving academic disarmed many that day.

Fast forward 22 years and I found myself crammed with the press pack on the Papal plane heading to the UK for Pope Benedict’s historic visit.

The Cardinal, previously known to relatively few, had been shot into the spotlight after his election in 2005 - one of the hardest acts to follow after John Paul II, later made a saint. The press newly christened him Papa Ratzi.

Pope Benedict XVI prays during a mass in London in 2010 Credit: Reuters

To say he was flying into a storm was an understatement.

The Church was in the grip of the child sex abuse scandal, and his hardline stance on issues such as homosexuality, same-sex marriage and women’s ordination were provoking howls of anger - and there were promises of huge protests to meet him.

Protests there certainly were, but nothing on the scale predicted. Before Pope Benedict landed - he issued a profound apology on the issue of sex abuse. He had by this time begun a process of at least addressing the issue - even if the work never went far enough.

The apology set a tone of humility for the visit and the crowds of faithful who came to the Mass he celebrated at Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park were huge.

The visit also saw him become the first Pope to meet - in private - survivors of clerical sexual abuse.

The late Queen Elizabeth II pictured alongside Pope Benedict XVI in Edinburgh in 2010. Credit: PA

At each encounter with the British public - whether meeting the late Queen, addressing Parliament, meeting schoolchildren or presiding over evening prayer in Hyde Park, warmth towards to the theologian Pope grew.

A priest I know told me that many years later, Pope Benedict said how impressed he was by the faith he’d witnessed in largely secular Britain.

Of course, whatever personal memories many Catholics may have: this Papacy will be forever defined for the way it ended.

A jaw dropping moment - a few words uttered in Latin - when Benedict XVI became the first in nearly 600 years to resign: the responsibilities becoming too much to bear.

It rocked the Church, and ultimately led to the election of Pope Francis - a South American progressive hard on the heels of a deeply conservative European.

Pope Francis, right, hugs Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the former Convent Mater Ecclesiae at the Vatican in 2016. Credit: L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP, File

Although the two popes have existed alongside one another in a spirit of cordial warmth, the difference could not have been more stark - and created divisions in the Church that sadly run deep today.

So tomorrow is another moment in history for one of the most ancient institutions on earth, as one Pope presides at another’s funeral.

There are many who found Benedict XVI’s leadership of the Church too entrenched in past tradition and thought. Some will have feelings of anger over his failure to move on social issues and to act more robustly on abuse.

But for for those devoted to his Papacy and the vast body of theological writing which form a key part of his legacy - it will be a day of sorrow, but comforted too that he is at last at rest, in the heart of the Church to which he devoted his whole life.

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