ROME – After the death earlier this year of a close friend and former colleague, Benedict XVI wrote a letter to the monastery to which his late friend belonged in which he offered condolences, and said he hoped his journey to the afterlife would not be long in coming.
German priest and Cistercian monk Gerhard Winkler, a fellow professor during Benedict’s time at Regensburg, died Sept. 22 at the age of 91.
Three weeks later, Benedict wrote an Oct. 2 letter to Reinhold Dessl, abbot of the Wilhering monastery to which Winkler belonged in which he said news of Winkler’s death, which he received from Dessl himself, “deeply moved me.”
“Of all my colleagues and friends, he was the closest to me. His joyfulness and his deep faith always attracted me,” Benedict said.
“Now he has reached the afterlife, where certainly many friends await him,” he said, adding, “I hope that I may join them soon.”
It is unclear whether these words from Benedict were in reference to a specific illness, or whether he was making a general statement.
Benedict resigned from the papacy in 2013 citing reasons of health, but he has lived for nearly a decade after becoming the first pope to renounce the papacy in nearly 500 years.
At 94, Benedict has been described as increasingly frail, hard of hearing and losing his sight, and as having difficulty speaking, while also being fully mentally astute. Although he is no longer able to stand for the celebration of the Mass, according to previous statements made by his personal secretary, German Archbishop Georg Ganswein, he concelebrates Mass every day in the small chapel housed in the Vatican monastery where he lives from his wheelchair.
While his words in the letter might sound ominous, Benedict has implied that his time might be short before, saying in a letter published in an Italian newspaper in 2018 that he was on a “pilgrimage towards home.”
The letter was sent to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera newspaper to thank readers for their best wishes on the 5th anniversary of his resignation.
In the letter, Benedict said that he was “moved that so many readers want to know how I spend my days in this, the last period of the life.”
“I can only say that with the slow withering of my physical forces, interiorly, I am on a pilgrimage towards home,” he said.
Ever since his resignation, Benedict has attempted to keep a low-public profile, making just a handful of public appearances over the past eight and a half years. However, he has given numerous interviews and has written several letters which have been published since stepping down, some of which have caused controversy for being spun in the media to contradict positions taken by his successor, Pope Francis.
Benedict’s last time traveling outside of the Vatican walls was to visit his ailing brother, Georg Ratzinger, in Regensburg in June 2020.
Georg died shortly after that visit, leaving Benedict as the last of the Ratzinger siblings. Their sister Maria, who never married, but who managed Benedict’s apartment in Rome after he was named a cardinal, died in 1991 after suffering a massive heart attack during a visit to their parents’ tomb.
Regensburg represents an important part of Benedict’s history, particular his academic years prior to coming to Rome.
After his ordination in 1951 alongside his brother Georg, Benedict held several teaching positions at different universities in Germany, before returning to his native Bavaria in 1969 as a theology professor at the University of Regensburg.
He served as vice president of the university from 1976 to 1977, before his appointment as Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977.
During his time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger often repeated his desire to retire to his family house in the Bavarian village of Pentling, near Regensburg, and dedicate himself to writing books.
Benedict’s parents and siblings are buried just outside of Regensburg, and for years his brother Georg, an avid music enthusiast, served as director of the prestigious Regensburg cathedral choir, known as the Regensburger Domspatzen.
Regensburg is also where Benedict caused one of the earliest international incidents in his papacy while giving a September 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg that touched on Islam, and which enraged Muslims and Islamic leaders around the world when he quoted a 14th century dialogue between Byzantine emperor Michael II Paleologus and a “learned Persian,” in which the former criticizes Islam.
Regensburg is also where he met Winkler, who grew up next to the Wilhering monastery he joined in 1951, the same year Benedict and his brother Georg were ordained priests.
Winkler conducted his academic studies in Vienna as well as at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He was ordained a priest in 1955 and went on to obtain two doctoral degrees, in theology and German studies.
He taught English and German in grammar school before becoming a research assistant and later professor at the University of Bochum in 1972.
From 1974-1983 Winkler was a professor of Middle and New Church History at the University of Regensburg, before moving onto the University of Salzburg. After his retirement in 1999, he continued actively writing on specialistic topics, including St. Bernard Clairvaux and the Cistercian order.
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