Pope Francis on Wednesday asked those present at his weekly audience to pray for the retired Pope Benedict XVI, who Francis said was “very ill.” In their prayers, Francis said, people should ask God to console Benedict and “support him in this witness of love to the church, until the end.”
Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesman, said in a statement that, after the audience, Francis had visited Benedict, 95, at the monastery on Vatican City grounds where Benedict has lived since announcing his resignation in February 2013. Benedict was the first pope in six centuries to step down. Increasingly frail, he has rarely made public appearances in recent years.
Mr. Bruni said that Benedict’s health had “deteriorated in recent hours due to advancing age.” The situation, he added, was “under control at the moment, and was constantly monitored by doctors.”
When he resigned nearly 10 years ago, Benedict had cited his declining health, both “of mind and body.” He had said that “due to an advanced age,” his strengths were “no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of leading the church, which had led to his decision to resign freely, and “for the good of the church.”
Since then, he has mostly stepped back from public life, dedicating himself to prayer and meditation.
“I’d like to ask all of you for a special prayer for emeritus Pope Benedict, who, in silence, is sustaining the church,” Francis said on Wednesday at the end of his hourlong audience. Francis later wrote on Twitter, “Let us #PrayTogether” for Benedict.
Joseph Alois Ratzinger was born in 1927 and ordained a priest in 1951. Pope Paul VI named him archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, the same year that he became a cardinal. Four years later, Pope John Paul II summoned Cardinal Ratzinger to Rome, where he became prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office responsible for defending church orthodoxy, one of the Vatican’s most important positions. He headed the office for nearly 25 years.
After John Paul died in 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger was chosen as his successor, taking the name of a fifth-century monk, Benedict of Norcia, who had founded monasteries that spread Christianity in Europe. The new pope, as Benedict XVI, would seek to re-evangelize a Europe that was struggling to maintain its faith.
An intellectual who wrote several theological works, Benedict is considered conservative in his religious and social views. At the same time, he has taken what many considered to be liberal stands in promoting environmental protection and in criticizing capitalism, notably during the financial crisis that erupted in 2008.
But his papacy was marred by the unresolved sexual abuse scandal in the church, and in the year before he stepped down, an Italian journalist published a book based on insider documents detailing infighting, corruption and a power struggle at the Vatican bank.
When Benedict turned 95 in April, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the former pope’s longtime personal secretary, said that Benedict was in “good spirits.” In an interview with Vatican News, a Vatican-controlled outlet, Archbishop Gänswein said that Benedict was “of course physically relatively weak and frail, but lucid.”
The archbishop also said in the interview that Benedict read and dealt with correspondence and that he met with visitors but that he found it difficult to be the main celebrant at Mass because he did not have the strength.
This month, during an awards ceremony named for his predecessor, Pope Francis honored Benedict, remarking on the “spiritual presence and accompaniment in prayer” of the retired pope.
Pope Francis last visited Benedict in August, along with a group of prelates who had been elevated as cardinals that day.
A video released by the Vatican at the time showed a very frail Benedict receiving the greetings of the new cardinals. He and Francis blessed them at the end.
The Vatican has not made the funeral plans for Benedict public. Normally, upon the death of a pope, a highly ritualized set of traditions is set in motion, culminating in a conclave to choose a successor.
That traditional process involves sealing the pope’s study and bedroom, destroying the ring he used to seal papal documents and enacting various funeral rites. But it was unclear whether the usual procedures would be enacted in the case of the retired pope, and the Vatican did not respond to a request for clarification.
Church leaders joined Francis on Wednesday in praying for the retired pope. Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, said that Benedict’s post-papacy decision to accompany the church with prayer and reflection “was a strong message for the ecclesiastical community and the whole of society.”
The archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, noted that he had “received the news that there is a great concern in Rome about the state of health of the pope emeritus.”
“But for us, we are united in prayer,” Cardinal Marx said, in remarks quoted by the news agency DPA.
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.