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Benedict, the former pope, dies at 95

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Pope Benedict the XVI, the first pontiff to step down since the 15th century, died today in Vatican City at the age of 95. The German born Joseph Ratzinger was a theologian by training. Before becoming pope, he served for a quarter century as Catholicism's top enforcer of orthodoxy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that by retiring, one of the most conservative pontiffs in recent memory charted a radical new course for the papacy.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: On February 11, 2013, almost eight years after he had been elected Pope, Benedict XVI shocked the world with this announcement in Latin.

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POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Through interpreter) After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.

POGGIOLI: Gerard O'Connell, Vatican correspondent for the Jesuit magazine "America," says it was after a fall during his visit to Mexico in 2012 that Benedict understood he could no longer fulfill his papal duties.

GERARD O'CONNELL: Here is a man who, in prayer, discerned his own limits and said, I can go so far. I do not have the physical strength to go further, and therefore, I resign. As he explains in that last interview book, he had a sense of peace that he had made the right decision.

POGGIOLI: But as pope, many critics believed he had made several bad decisions. Benedict's efforts to revive Christianity in secularized Europe, threatened by what he called the dictatorship of relativism, were overshadowed by the many crises of his papacy. He offended Jews when he lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist Holocaust-denying bishop. He was severely reprimanded by European politicians with his remarks that condoms helped spread AIDS. Vatican power struggles showed he had little control over the Vatican bureaucracy, and his papacy was haunted by clerical sex abuse scandals. One of the worst crises was in 2006. In a lecture at his old university at Regensburg, Benedict quoted a remark made by a 14th century emperor deriding Islam.

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POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Through interpreter) He said, and I quote, "show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

POGGIOLI: The quote triggered Muslim fury worldwide, and tensions eased only after Benedict visited Istanbul's Blue Mosque and prayed silently next to a Muslim cleric. At the age of 35, Ratzinger became a theological advisor to the Second Vatican Council, whose reforms ushered the Catholic Church into the 20th century. But by the end of the tumultuous 1960s, Ratzinger believed the spirit of Vatican II had been betrayed. As Vatican doctrinal watchdog, he became a polarizing figure. He chastised dissident theologians and described homosexuality as an objective disorder and an intrinsic moral evil. Church historian Massimo Faggioli believes that by approaching the world from a purely intellectual and theological perspective, Benedict's papacy was ultimately a failure.

MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: Because to be pope, you are not the theologian chief. You are the pastor in chief. That's the magic of the papal office. It's not about your CV with publications. It's about something completely else.

POGGIOLI: Ironically, says Faggioli, the real legacy of Benedict's papacy was how he ended it.

FAGGIOLI: Pope Benedict's decision to resign was a very radical interpretation of the Second Vatican Council going beyond the letter by the end. That was revolutionary.

POGGIOLI: Gerard O'Connell of America magazine says that in his final remarks to the cardinals before leaving the Vatican, Benedict told them, among you is my successor.

O'CONNELL: He promised that he would give loyalty and obedience to his successor, and he has respected that commitment in a total, absolute way.

POGGIOLI: After Pope Francis was elected, Benedict lived quietly in a residence on Vatican grounds. Despite pressure from many church conservatives to intervene against the reforms of the new papacy, the Pope Emeritus rarely appeared in public and never voiced any opposition to his successor. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.