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Former Pope Benedict XVI dies at 95

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

Pope Benedict XVI, the first pope in 600 years to retire, has died. He was 95. The German pontiff had lived at the Vatican since his surprise retirement in 2013. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Rome, and she joins us now.

Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Alina.

SELYUKH: Tell us what the Vatican said this morning.

POGGIOLI: Well, in a very brief statement, the Vatican spokesman said, with sorrow, I inform you that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed away today at 9:34 in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican. And he supplied some information a little bit later on the details of the funeral.

SELYUKH: Benedict was pope for nearly eight years. What is he remembered most for?

POGGIOLI: Well, his efforts to revive Christianity in a secularized Europe, which he saw as threatened by what he called a dictatorship of relativism - those efforts were overshadowed by many crises. His papacy was haunted by clerical abuse scandals and missteps that offended Jews and Muslims. And Vatican power struggles also show that he had little control over the Holy See's bureaucracy.

In terms of clerical sex abuse scandals, they erupted all over the world under his papacy. But Benedict is credited with starting the process to discipline or defrock predator priests. It's an issue that had been more or less ignored or even played down under his predecessor, John Paul II. Benedict ordered an inquiry into the Irish Catholic Church that led to several resignations of bishops, and he disciplined Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ and one of the Catholic Church's most notorious predators. And yet just this year, an independent report in Benedict's homeland, Germany, alleged he had failed to take action in four cases when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982.

SELYUKH: Difficult legacy. Benedict eventually became the first pope to retire in modern times, as we'd mentioned. Tell us about that.

POGGIOLI: Well, it was a huge shock. And by doing so, one of the most conservative popes in recent memory charted, really, a radical new course for the papacy. Some scholars say it was revolutionary. In fact, his successor, Pope Francis, has spoken openly of the possibility of his resignation should he feel he cannot fulfill his duties.

SELYUKH: How has the church changed since Benedict retired?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, Francis is widely seen as the other side of the pendulum swing from conservative to progressive. And, you know, in fact, willingly or not, Benedict, in retirement, in a monastery on Vatican grounds became a kind of rallying point for conservatives who opposed Francis' liberalizing moves in the Catholic Church. Francis has a much greater emphasis on mercy, as opposed to Benedict's insistence on strict rules on morality.

SELYUKH: Sylvia, we know generally what happens when a serving pope dies. You'd mentioned we got some details on the upcoming funeral. So what happens in this case, the death of a retired pope?

POGGIOLI: There are very elaborate rules for the funeral of a reigning pope, but no known ones for a former pope. The last pope to resign some 600 years ago reverted to being a cardinal. And his funeral rite was that of cardinals. The Vatican has said that Benedict's body would lie in state from Monday in Saint Peter's Basilica. And the spokesman said the funeral will take place Thursday in Saint Peter's Square, and Pope Francis will preside. And the spokesman, Matteo Bruni, added, in accordance with the emeritus pope's desires, the funeral will be marked by simplicity.

SELYUKH: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

Sylvia, thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you. 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.