Benedict XVI, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, served as leader of the Catholic Church and Sovereign of the Vatican City State from 2005 to 2013. Benedict was elected on April 19, 2005 in a papal conclave. Ordained a priest in 1951 in his native Bavaria, Ratzinger was a highly regarded university theologian and was appointed full professor in 1958. After a long career as an academic, serving as a professor of theology at several German universities, he was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising and Cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1977. From 2002 until his election as pope, he was Dean of the College of Cardinals, primus inter pares among the Cardinals. He was “one of the most respected, influential and controversial members of the College of Cardinals” and was one of Pope John Paul II’s closest confidants.
Benedict XVI was elected pope at 78, the oldest person since Pope Clement XII (1730-40). He had served longer as a Cardinal than any Pope since Benedict XIII (1724-30). On February 11, 2013, the Vatican confirmed that Benedict XVI would resign the papacy on February 28, 2013 as a result of his advanced age, becoming the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415. In modern times, all popes have stayed in office until death. Benedict is the first pope to have resigned without external pressure since Celestine V in 1294. Benedict cited his deteriorating strength and the physical and mental demands of the papacy and declared that he would continue to serve the church “through a life dedicated to prayer”.
Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio on December 17, 1936, is the 266th and current pope of the Roman Catholic Church, elected on March 13, 2013. A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he was ordained priest in 1969. He served as head of the Society of Jesus in Argentina from 1973 to 1979. In 1998 he became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and in 2001 a Cardinal. Following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, on February 28, 2013, the conclave elected Bergoglio, who chose the papal name Francis in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi. Besides being the first Jesuit pope, he is also the first to choose the name Francis, and the first from the Americas and the Southern Hemisphere.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was one of five children of Mario José Bergoglio, an Italian immigrant railway worker. Cardinal Bergoglio became known for personal humility, doctrinal conservatism, a simple lifestyle and a commitment to social justice. He lived in a small apartment, rather than the elegant bishop’s residence, took public transportation and cooked his own meals, while limiting his time in Rome to “lightning visits”.
Instead of accepting his cardinals’ congratulations while seated on the papal throne, Francis received them standing, an immediate sign of a changing approach to formalities at the Vatican. During his first appearance as pontiff on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica, he wore a white cassock, not the red, ermine-trimmed “mozzetta” used by the previous Pope Benedict XVI and the same iron pectoral cross that he had worn as Cardinal. Francis began his first blessing with “Buonasera” (“good evening”), breaking with the traditional formality at the event and asked those in St. Peter’s Square to pray for the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, and for himself before offering his own blessings. At his first audience on March 16, 2013, Francis told journalists that he had chosen the name in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi, and had done so because he was especially concerned for the well-being of the poor. In both his first homily as pope and in his first address to the Cardinals, Francis talked about walking in the presence of Jesus Christ and stressed the church mission to announce him. He emphasised the concept of “encounter with Jesus” and stressed that “if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord”. He went on to teach that “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil… when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly” (Sources: Wikipedia and news reports).
Benedict and Francis offer refreshing and significant lessons in leadership to the world and to our nation. At a time in which people embrace power and high office for its own sake, Benedict walked away from one of the most powerful offices in the world because he recognised his inability to offer his best in that position. All over the world, and particularly in our Nigeria, many would have opted to stay and enjoy the benefits of the position. In a world in which so-called “leaders” do whatever the polls favour (whether it’s homosexual marriage or legalising marijuana!), these are individuals who retain a moral and spiritual compass, irrespective of what the current liberal fashion is. At a time when many religious leaders are pre-occupied with worldly power and money, Pope Francis’ focus on the poor and shunning of the trappings of wealth and luxury is a positive reminder of the essence of our faith and his counsel against a worldly church (which is more or less a charitable NGO) is timely!