VATICAN CITY — Benedict XVI always cast himself as the reluctant pope, a bookworm who preferred solitary walks in the Alps to the public glare and the majesty of Vatican pageantry. But once in office, he never shied from charting the Catholic Church on the course he thought it needed — a determination reflected in his announcement Monday that he would be the first pope to resign since 1415.
While taking the Vatican and world by surprise, Benedict had laid the groundwork for the decision years ago, saying popes have the obligation to resign if they get too old or sick to carry on. And to many, his decision was in keeping with a man who had dedicated his life to the church, showing his love for the institution and a courageous acknowledgment that it needed new blood to confront the future.
The German theologian, whose mission was to reawaken Christianity in a secularized Europe, grew increasingly frail as he shouldered the monumental task of purging the Catholic world of a sex abuse scandal that festered under John Paul II and exploded during his reign into the church’s biggest crisis in decades, if not centuries.
More recently, he bore the painful burden of betrayal by one of his closest aides: Benedict’s own butler was convicted by a Vatican court of stealing the pontiff’s personal papers and giving them to a journalist, one of the gravest breaches of papal security in modern times.
All the while, Benedict pursued his single-minded vision to rekindle faith in a world that, he frequently lamented, seemed to think it could do without God.
‘‘In vast areas of the world today, there is a strange forgetfulness of God,’’ he told 1 million young people gathered on a vast field for his first foreign trip as pope, World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. ‘‘It seems as if everything would be just the same even without Him.’’
With some decisive, often controversial moves, Benedict tried to remind Europe of its Christian heritage and set the Catholic Church on a conservative, tradition-minded path that often alienated liberals and thrilled conservatives.
The Vatican’s crackdown on American nuns — accused of straying from church doctrine in pursuing social justice issues rather than stressing core church teaching on such issues as abortion — left a bitter taste for many American Catholics.
But conservatives cheered his championing of the pre-Vatican II church and his insistence on tradition, even if it cost the church popularity among liberals. As he said in his 1996 book ‘‘Salt of the Earth,’’ a smaller but purer church may be necessary.
His papacy will be forever intertwined with the sex abuse scandal. Over the course of just a few months in 2010, thousands of people in Europe, Australia, South America, and beyond came forward with reports of priests who raped and molested them as children and bishops who covered up the crimes.
Benedict knew the scope of the problem because the Vatican office he led since 1982, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was responsible for dealing with abuse cases.
No globe-trotting showman or media darling like John Paul, Benedict was a teacher and academic to the core: quiet and pensive with a fierce mind. He spoke in paragraphs, not sound bites. In recent years, his declining health made him seem increasingly fragile and somewhat disengaged in public.
Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was born in Marktl, Bavaria, Germany, in 1927. He was ordained priest along with his brother, Georg, in 1951. After spending several years teaching theology in Germany, he was appointed bishop of Munich in 1977 and elevated to cardinal three months later by Pope Paul VI.
John Paul named Cardinal Ratzinger leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981 and he took up his post a year later. After John Paul’s death in 2005, he was elected the 265th leader of the Church. Benedict, then 78, was the oldest pope elected in 275 years and the first German one in nearly 1,000 years.
Benedict wrote three encyclicals, ‘‘God is Love’’ in 2006, ‘‘Saved by Hope’’ in 2007, and ‘‘Charity in Truth’’ in 2009. The last was perhaps his best known, as it called for a new world financial order guided by ethics and was published in the throes of the global financial meltdown.
Some of Benedict’s most lasting initiatives as pope focused on restoring traditional Catholic practice and worship to 21st century Catholicism. It was all in a bid to correct what he considered the erroneous interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the Catholic Church into the modern world.
Benedict relaxed restrictions on celebrating the old, pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. He reached out to a group of traditionalist, schismatic Catholics in a bid to bring them back into Rome’s fold. And he issued an unprecedented invitation to traditionalist Anglicans upset over women priests and gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church.
In doing so, he alienated many Catholics who feared he was rolling back the clock on Vatican II.
He also angered some Jews who equated the pre-Vatican II church with the time when Jews were still considered ripe for conversion and were held responsible collectively for the death of Christ.
Yet like John Paul, Benedict had made reaching out to Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as pope was a letter to Rome’s Jewish community and he became the second pope in history, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue.
His 2009 visit to Israel, however, drew a lukewarm response from officials at Jerusalem’s national Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial who found Benedict’s speech lacking. His call for a Palestinian state also put a damper on the visit.
Jews were also incensed at Benedict’s constant promotion toward sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope accused by some of having failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust.
And they criticized Benedict when he removed the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the Holocaust.
Benedict’s relations with the Muslim world were also mixed.
He riled the Muslim world with a speech in Regensburg, Germany in September 2006, five years after the terror attacks in the United States, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the prophet Mohammed as ‘‘evil and inhuman,’’ particularly ‘‘his command to spread by the sword the faith.’’